"Animal Kingdom" is an art house crime saga that will put your heart in your mouth, a moody, brooding, modern-day film noir that marks the impressive debut of an Australian writer-director who knows how to make a film that is, in his own words, "dark and violent yet beautiful and poetic at the same time."
That would be David Michod, a compelling creator of story and atmosphere whose assured film, which took the highly competitive world cinema jury prize at Sundance, manages to be both laconic and operatic.
Faultlessly acted by top Australian talent, including Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver, "Animal Kingdom" marries heightened emotionality with cool contemporary style to illustrate one of the oldest of genre truths: "Crooks always come undone, always, one way or another."
That speaker is 17-year-old Joshua, or J (newcomer James Frecheville), cast adrift when his mother overdoses on heroine and who ends up living with his grandmother and his trio of desperate, outside-the-law uncles. Coldblooded crime is their business, their only business, and much against his will J becomes a pawn between the only family he has left and the deadly, unapologetically immoral pressure put on everyone by the lawless Melbourne police.
What's especially impressive about "Animal Kingdom" is how carefully made it is, how Michod and his team use all the tools at a filmmaker's disposal, including cinematography, lighting and sound design, to create a disturbing, malignant atmosphere in which every pause is pregnant with menace and every word could cost you your life.
A key element in this tapestry is the critical role given to Antony Partos' part-acoustic and part-electronic score, which completely achieves what the composer calls "a sense of the epic within the film without being melodramatic." Michod so trusted the score he periodically uses it instead of dialogue over key dramatic moments.
This rich music smoothly counterpoints "Animal Kingdom's" unadorned script and naturalistic acting, the sense that all its performers convey that everything they experience, no matter how shocking, surprising or malevolent, is happening in deadly earnest.
J, of course, knows nothing of what is in store for him when he comes to live with his grandmother, a tiny blond woman, upbeat and bubbly, whom everyone calls Smurf (Weaver). He remembers, he says in voice-over, that "Mom kept me away from our family because she was scared," but he has yet to find out what she was scared of.
Armed robbery, it turns out, is the family trade, but J arrives at a time when the trade is falling apart. As family friend and criminal partner Barry ( Joel Edgerton) says, "Our game is over, it's getting too hard." J's edgy, tattooed Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is moving into drug dealing, while Uncle Darren ( Luke Ford) can't seem to find his footing anywhere.
We don't meet the group's alpha male, older brother Pope, right away. He's in hiding because the police have promised to kill him on sight. Pope, however, makes up for lost time once he shows. Indelibly played by Mendelsohn, one of Australia's top actors, Pope is a complete terror, relentlessly threatening everyone he runs into both physically and psychologically.
Equally impressive is the way the veteran Weaver, the first person Michod cast and an acting icon in Australia, manages all the different layers of Smurf, a woman whose good cheer fights for airtime with an undercurrent of ruthlessness. When she kisses her sons on the lips for a second too long, when she smiles and says, "I've been around a long time, sweetie," it's enough to make anyone's blood run cold.
As Smurf and her sons endeavor to meet force with force, J and his high school girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), find themselves at the mercy of forces who are indifferent to their survival. Young actor Frecheville is bigger than most adults, and Michod said at Sundance that he initially had a completely different physical type in mind, but the filmmaker was understandably persuaded by Frecheville's ability to play the role as an unformed man-child, unaware of what he is up against.
Guy Pearce, "Animal Kingdom's" biggest name, is exactly as he should be as a tough, capable Melbourne detective sergeant who's this unscrupulous world's only moral presence. Though his character doesn't enter the narrative until its second half, Pearce, like every actor here, is perfectly cast to advance the story, yet another essential element in a debut film to wonder at and admire.