A young man sits on a living-room sofa, the TV blaring a game show, an older woman slouched next to him; she might be asleep. Two men arrive, from EMS, and ask, "What has she taken?" "Heroin," replies the boy. His mother is dead, and 17-year-old Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) needs help with funeral arrangements, so he calls his grandmother, his mum's mum. But Janine (Jacki Weaver), known as Smurf, and her three sons are a scourge of the Australian underworld. J had been estranged from the rest of the Cody brood for his protection; his smack-addled mom, it turns out, was the family's renegade white sheep. Poor, dim J would be better off wandering the streets, getting into ordinary kinds of trouble, rather than slipping into the wayward ways of Smurf, the Ma Barker of Melbourne, and her nasty lads.
Winner of the World Cinema - Dramatic prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, David Michôd's Animal Kingdom is a contemplative crime drama with a high startlement quotient. It provides an inside look at a pride of wild beasts as if Leatherface and his clan had moved from rural Texas to New South Wales, and from chainsaw-wielding to armed robbery. But unlike the Massacre movies, this one doesn't begin in normality, letting some frolicking young innocents wander into a house of psychopathy. Here, the criminals are the norm; and J, though the movie's nominal audience surrogate, and less deranged than his kin, is weak-willed enough to do what his grandma and uncles tell him. After all, they're family.
The three Cody brothers could fill out a group profile of the criminal mind. The youngest, Darren (Luke Ford, the transplanted Canadian who played Brendan Fraser's son in the third Mummy movie), is blond, bland and mostly passive the closest in age and temperament to J but a reliable accomplice in his brothers' schemes. Middle-son Craig (Sullivan Stapleton, who must have won a Russell Crowe act-alike contest) is a hyperactive coke-snorter who makes a handsome living selling drugs. These two, though, are choir boys compared with the eldest son, Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), whom everyone, from reverence or fear, calls Pope. He's the brains of the outfit, the one who keeps the rest in line with whispered menace and a killer instinct.
The brothers want to do right by J, in their fashion. Like any thoughtful uncle with a backward boy in his care, Craig instructs J in the post-peeing etiquette of using soap, water and an electric hand-dryer. He also gives J a quick rite-of-passage initiation into the family ethos when he orders the kid to point a loaded gun at some rival goons. Threatening to kill people: feel good, doesn't it, J? "Got a stiffie?" Craig asks. Animal Kingdom is alert both to the maleness of aggression the bantering threats, the competitive camaraderie of an impromptu wrestling match on the couch and to the wiles of a dominant female.
Smurf is a real sketch of maternal devotion: gives a full-mouth kiss to one son, snuggles on the lap of another, counsels that "It's all right to cry" when hearing bad news and suggests that Pope might want to go back on his meds. Cody Jarrett, the migraine-plagued gangster played by James Cagney in the 1949 crime classic White Heat, had such a mother, his evil idol, on whose lap he would sit when he needed cuddling. The Cody brothers in Animal Kingdom are just as dependent on Smurf; and more than a comforter and abettor to her sons' misbehavior, she is their spiritual guide the petite, purring, bleach-blond fountainhead of the family disease.
The Cody virulence could be a citywide phenomenon, for it also infects the legal establishment the family's lawyer (Dan Wyllie) is another coke-sniffing sleaze and the Melbourne police. Some of them are on the take; others walk up to a suspect and shoot him point-blank. When Pope hatches a revenge plot that involves a stolen car and two murdered cops, J is the one chosen to commit grand theft auto. This attracts the notice of a possibly honest detective, Leckie (L.A. Confidential's Guy Pearce, in a crucial supporting role), who hopes to persuade J to give state's evidence against his uncles. When Smurf learns of this, she pinwheels into action: masterminding the boy's defense, then hatching a plot to get rid of a bad seed who might turn good.
Writer-director Michôd demonstrates an eerie virtuosity for someone just getting into feature films after apprenticing in award-winning shorts. He's a man with a slow, sure hand; his tracking shots are artful but not ostentatious; he trusts the viewer to suss out the family dynamic without much back story. (Odd, then, that he felt the need of J's occasional voiceover narration, since it's quite a bit brighter than the boy is, and anyone watching closely can figure out what's going on in his mind: not much.) He makes smart use of Sam Petty's electronic score, which is mostly a series of long monotones, like the last note of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," that creates an ominous atmosphere and possibly replicates the droning inside Pope's brain.
If Michôd has cinematic forebears, they're Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi and other directors from the first flowering generation of Australian films in the 1970s and early '80s. Like them, he shows an anthropological fascination with marginal characters. Like them, he favors the arid expanse of the wide screen, and subtly shifting focal lengths, and the camera placed low, at fender or kneecap level, as in the signature Aussie film of the period, George Miller's Mad Max. There's even a clip of the 1980 hit "All Out of Love" by the Australian duo Air Supply. Animal Kingdom also shares a trans-Pacific vibe with Michel Mann's 1981 Thief, another study of criminal mentality from the inside.
Young auteurs aren't supposed to be good at directing the camera and directing the actors, but Michôd gets exemplary work from his whole cast. (Or maybe these performers, most of them new to American movie watchers, were terrific to begin with.) Frecheville who looks a little like Mad Max's young Mel Gibson, but with every emotion suppressed instead of exploding is the hole at the story's center, letting more seasoned actors command the audience's uneasy interest. Weaver, brandishing a steely-cheery attitude from some Carry On film or Benny Hill episode, is the agent of such iniquity that she can infuse deadly intent into a conversation with Detective Leckie at a supermarket check-out counter. She's an ordinary suburban, dead-thrilling kind of bad.
The same for Mendelsohn: he fills every moment he's on-screen with a sick tension and apprehension. Like the silky thugs in Harold Pinter's early dramas, Pope puts the promise of peril in every quiet conversation of asking questions with a confessor's confidentiality but the undertone of mortal threat. "I don't care if you're gay," he tells brother Darren, who's given no hint of being gay. "I just want to know." His most malefic moment comes when he injects J's teen girlfriend Nicole (Laura Wheelwright) with heroin, then smothers her to death. But the creepiest scene is earlier, when Pope carries the sleeping Nicole into a spare bedroom and stands over her, staring at her exposed thigh, when his musings are interrupted by J's appearance at the door. At this moment, moviegoers wonder what depredations has J just saved Nicole and us?
Mendelsohn and Weaver may well be cited for acting awards at year's end, and beyond, at Oscar time. But don't wait that long to see Animal Kingdom. It's a downer movie whose skill and kick should make you happy it exists.