Animal Kingdom, 112 mins, rated TBC, opens in cinemas 3 June 2010.


(This is my review as published in the June 2010 issue of the NSW Law Society Journal).

Criminal life has been everywhere in the media recently. On television we have had 3 series of Underbelly. The first was set in Melbourne, dealing with the Carlton Crew and the gangland wars of 1995-2004. The second was a “prequel”, set in Sydney, Griffith and Asia, and dealt with the drug trade from 1976-1987. And the third series was set in Sydney’s Kings Cross during the years 1988-1999.

In April 2010, Australia was shocked when one of the Underbelly characters, real-life criminal Carl Williams, died at the high-security Barwon Prison after being bashed several times with part of an exercise bike. A few days later, a fellow prisoner was charged with his murder. Now comes a terrific new Australian crime film called Animal Kingdom.

But Animal Kingdom is no sensationalised version of the criminal life. Although this story is fictional, it is probably much closer to the reality of much of the Melbourne crime scene. The film it most brings to mind is another Aussie crime film that was roughly based on a true story: The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998).  Like that film, Animal Kingdom is notable for its sombre vision and its excellent cast: Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Jackie Weaver, Dan Wyllie and Anthony Hayes (Hayes was also in The Boys). That’s an impressive list. Newcomer James Frecheville is Joshua (‘J’) Cody, our narrator and protagonist.

Animal Kingdom revolves around a family of criminals, showing how easy it might be to drift into a life of crime – if that was the daily routine of all those around you.

The director, David Michôd, was at the screening I attended. Despite the fact that Animal Kingdom won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, he’s clearly worried that Australians won’t go to see this, his first feature film. He said: “We’re at the beginning of … the precarious business of trying to get Australian audiences to see Australian films… it’s excruciating!”

But Australians should go to see this film. Underbelly rates its head off. Will the same people who watch that on TV go to the cinema to see a much more intelligent treatment of the same kind of subject-matter? I hope so, but I suspect not.

If they do go, they will be rewarded with an intelligent script, and a gripping portrayal of Australian crime: how criminals work, how detectives gather the evidence to trap them, and how criminals – and their lawyers – make the best of the legal process.

Our narrator, J, is only 17, and not very mature or knowing. He goes with the flow, even in this case, where the flow is perilous. But he’s a strapping young boy – a man-child. So most people treat him like a man, and don’t seem to realize that he needs protection and guidance. The one person who understands this – but also uses it to his advantage – is Guy Pearce’s character, Detective Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie.

Most of the film, but particularly the last third, is devoted to the cat-and-mouse game between the police and the Cody family, with J in the middle. This last part of the film also introduces us to the character Ezra White, the family’s lawyer. As played by Dan Wyllie (Love My Way, Underbelly), he’s substantial enough to have his own film.

The one false note is the character of the barrister Justine Hopkins. Lawyers will probably find themselves stifling cries of “I object” as she coaches her client in his evidence, and asks him outrageously leading questions. The charitable view might be that she is treating the witness as hostile, but that’s unlikely. However, I did love the fact when members of the Cody family have secret meetings with their lawyers, they hold them “where no one would think we’d go” – the National Gallery of Victoria!

David Michôd’s previous short film, Crossbow, won many Australian awards, including an AFI award for best screenplay. I saw it at the 2007 Sydney Film Festival: it is a terrific little film about a young boy living amidst a floating crowd of dope-smoking, tattooed, suspicious-looking adults. Animal Kingdom is Michôd’s next step towards what should be a successful career as a film director. And we should all help him on his way, by seeing Animal Kingdom.