When an airplane dips, it’s the worst kind of fear. Your insides turn to glass. You feel the people around you like they were lead pellets. Their fear threatens to shatter you. Trapped in mid-air, you will the next second not to happen. Hate comes easily, because everyone seems to be certain of the crash. Doom spreads from every desperate glance. There’s death in every whimper. You try to be brave. There isn’t anyone who can help. Fear bristles and bears its fangs, caught in your head. The wait is awful. It’s like waiting for execution. Until the plane steadies; grants you a reprieve. In the movie Animal Kingdom, the anti-heroes can’t escape their fear any more than air passengers. They’re both locked into catastrophe.
In Melbourne, Australia, a family of criminals are under death sentence. The Melbourne Armed Robbery Squad has declared war on them. Ma Cody and her three sons are fenced into their dreary suburban home by police surveillance. They move around like zoo animals. Male bravado is heckled by fear. Each man knows he’s been neutered by the authorities. And it galls them. They live in a tinderbox. When the youngest member of the family moves in (eighteen-year-old Joshua), he ignites the situation. No-one wants to seem weak in front of the kid. But fear keeps stealing from them. No amount of spilled blood can stop the paling of their hearts. This is their end. They can kick, and squirm, but they will be devoured.
Australian crime movies don’t care about crime. They watch what crime does to you; the unravelled quality of criminal lives. In this respect, David Michôd’s debut feature bares comparison with the work of fellow Antipodean, Andrew Dominik. Like Dominik’s movie, The Assassination of Jesse James, Animal Kingdom is about fissures in the hard-man facade. Outlaw life seems to chisel the men in these films, opening gaps in their egos. There’s too much time to think, between robberies. So introspection fills space, and warps and bloats, and malice spews inwards, as well as out. Committing crime is a form of self-harm according to Michôd and Dominik; it’s pressure release. For the career criminal, getting caught is like getting cancer; the older you are, the shorter the odds. Fatalism seems strange when applied to killers. But in these movies, murder beckons a brutal end.
Only one man in Animal Kingdom deserves to die, and he gets it last, (like Jesse James) almost nodding to his executioner. Before that, only the wrong people get killed. There are no shoot-outs, or thrilling chases. When someone gets shot, they’re dead before they get to fight back. The first killing sets the tone; catching the audience with such surprise, it’s like crashing through a window you didn’t see in front of you. It’s all over just as you’re reeling. So shock goes. David Michôd avoids adrenaline. This isn’t a movie about being on the run. It’s about being besieged. Love and dread are the dominant feelings. Unless you count feeling enervated. There’s no James Cagney yelling: “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!”
And perhaps that’s a problem. Certainly, the boy at the centre of the maelstrom is deadly dull. He’s real. This isn’t to say I doubt an eighteen-year-old would behave the way he does. But he’s so ordinary, it’s like watching lettuce. He reacts to everything with that unready look of someone who hasn’t been around. I struggled to care about him, if I’m honest. He is not Ray Liotta, saying: “Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” He does not pull you into his life, brazen and cocksure. He’s more like flotsam, a wrecked person, drawn to crime by the movements of the tide. In a movie where false thrills are strenuously eschewed; his character is someone who should excite you more.
There are no bank robberies in this bank robber story. We never get to know the dirty cops who are hunting the bank robbers down. All deaths in the film are horrible, but muted. So what you’re left with is a study of how it feels to be cornered and in the wrong. David Michôd doesn’t ask you to feel sympathy for the criminals. The boy isn’t yet a crook, so he’s allowed our goodwill. The rest get only condolences. They’re us in our bad dreams. They don’t die with much urgency, but then, that’s how it is in nightmares. This isn’t a film about short-lived fears; it isn’t a thriller. It’s a tragedy. The cops don’t catch these people, so much as feed off their carcasses. The hunt is over long before Animal Kingdom begins.