I have long been a fan of Guy Pearce, whose penchant for taking on small but meaningful roles has created one of the most diverse and surprising resumes for an actor of his caliber. Each week in 2020, I’ll be reviewing one of my Guy’s films, exploring just how wild his career has been.
Animal Kingdom follows the deterioration of an Australian bank-robbing clan engaged in a quiet war with police forces through the eyes of its newly embroiled member, Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville). J was isolated from his family’s mess by virtue of his mother, but she has overdosed on heroin and J is now under the care of Smurf (Jacki Weaver), his grandmother, in a house inhabited by his criminal uncles: Darren (Luke Ford), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Andrew, aka “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn). Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Smurf, and Mendelsohn has now become an international star in his own right.
After the Codys’ leader, Baz (Joel Edgerton), is eliminated by police officers, the Cody family quickly descends into violence and disarray.
Director David Michôd has never made another film quite so good. His sophomore effort, The Rover, is my next essay in this series — guess who it stars as a post-apocalyptic nomad with a mean streak? — and sort of stinks. Meanwhile, his Netflix films War Machine and The King leave a lot to be desired. Animal Kingdom is such a singular success, however, that every future project from Michôd deserves curiosity and attention.
Michôd’s story seethes with despair at the immutable rot of human nature beneath the veneer of civilization. The Codys are a crime family whose success is the result of their disdain for rules and aberrant behavior. J’s an insider by blood but an outsider by nature, and his very entrance into the world is fraught. Masculine violence is both creed and curse. Animal Kingdom has been compared, at times, to GoodFellas (what crime family film in the past 30 years hasn’t, though?). But it feels more greatly inspired by Michael Mann’s seminal Heat, albeit far more human. Gone are the over-the-top characters and the grand ideas of “we’re just the same, we cops and criminals.” What remains is the cat-and-mouse chase, underpinned by ardent belief that underneath our legal systems lies a natural law that the strongest survive.
Guy Pearce plays Nathan Leckie, the last honest cop in Melbourne, who pleads with J to turn on his family. Leckie’s depicted in an almost saint-like manner, with a mustache and big, neck-strapped glasses to soften him. He takes part in no action sequences. He has a daughter with Down syndrome and shops at the local supermarket with his wife. He’s the antithesis of the cop archetype in so many crime movies; he’s driven, by the book and genuinely hopeful J will make a good moral choice. Unlike most films of this kind, those attributes do not make Leckie weak or easily rolled. He is no less a “man” because he forgoes gunplay.
Leckie has the key monologue, too, about survival of the fittest and figuring out where you belong in a world defined by strength. It’s only 90 seconds, but goddamn. Overtly explaining Michôd’s ideas? Yeah. Beautifully delivered? Definitely.
Animal Kingdom has since inspired a shitty-looking TNT television series that has run for four seasons (with at least one more on the way). The series focuses more on the crimes, the glamour, the fun of being a criminal while making Smurf a more sexy, provocative kind. Pass. Give me Leckie watching J’s descent with patient despair any day.