There's a slight spoiler in the fifth full paragraph below in regard to what doesn't happen at the end of Animal Kingdom. That might sound like it's not that big of a deal -- after all, it's about what doesn't happen as opposed to what does, right? It's still worth mentioning now, and if you care at all about spoilers, don't read past the next four paragraphs.
You've got to appreciate Animal Kingdom for its sheer ambition, if nothing else. Director David Michôd intentionally conceived of a heist film without a single heist in it, a film about bank robbers without a single bank robbery. To his credit, he added stills of other
(apparently real-life) bank robberies over the opening credits, due to the fact that the first viewing audiences were a little thrown off in navigating the nature of the missing criminal acts. The stills do help. And I find the "heist movie without a heist" an interesting idea, one that I appreciate exploring, because the negating of typical bank-robbing scenes should make room for a deeper story to emerge, opening up characters, their homes and their relationships with each other in much more provocative and interesting ways.
Here we have a matriarchal crime family where all the grown-up boys do the dirty work mom inspires. (She's been referred to as the "Queen Pin" in other places on the Internet.) The actual story revolves around Josh, sometimes called "J," grandson of the matriarch, who says he's eighteen at the beginning of the film for legal reasons but is probably only seventeen in actuality. We never fully understand how all the pieces tie together, but somehow Josh loses his mom to a heroin overdose, which doesn't seem to emotionally register with either him or Grandma Queen Pin. He ends up living with Grandma, which means he might as well be living with the criminals as well. They spend a lot of time at Grandma's house. It's her constant desire to be close to the "boys," she gives them hugs and (somewhat strange) kisses on the lips and consoles them when one is shot by the police.
Josh is a bit dull. He's not outright stupid, but he doesn't always speak his mind, so it's hard to say where he's at sometimes. He's thought to be weaker than the rest of the gang, and typically takes orders and comes off as somewhat detached from the events. This is no character you'll find in a Tarantino film (not that I always need that -- see my recent blurb on Lourdes or my reaction to Illégal).
The newly introduced James Frencheville plays Josh just fine -- the dullness isn't due to the acting, but this is a dull character, which is at times no fun to watch. He drifts in and out of trouble with the family, and then the law, and then he's between a rock and a hard place which is the law and family both crashing in on him. But he barely raises an eyebrow, and it's not because he doesn't care. He's just slow, a bit of a dolt -- someone you wouldn't want babysitting your two year-old. I found myself wondering how a person appearing so witless could manage to get out of so many scrapes and keep himself alive and breathing. He doesn't seem capable of taking care of himself.
So there's Josh, and he is certainly one of the problems in this film. But there's more than that. There's also the missing action I mentioned before, but now I'm not even talking about the heist.
The problem with building a film around action scenes that aren't shown functions better for the heist than it does for quite a few courtroom scenes we never get to see in the film's end. We know Josh cuts some kind of a deal and gets the boys out of jail. We know that Grandma and a criminal lawyer (is there another kind?) had a lot to do with how this worked out. But we never see the court scenes, so we're left to put the puzzle together and try to figure out what exactly went down.
This is the ultimate downfall of the film for me. Not seeing the heists would have been fine; not seeing the courtroom scenes leaves the viewer in the cold. And when you're trying to watch a film that depends on narrative drive, being left out in the cold is no fun.
The film functioned fine as a crime tale diversion while I was watching it. There's a good story in there somewhere. I guess I just wish they would have told that story instead of making me constantly guess what it was.