Fear. It's an emotion cinema often exploits in the most obvious ways. First-time director David Michod has something a bit more ambitious in mind. His menacing Aussie family crime drama makes clear that bad guys, no matter how bold, operate in a world of suffocating desperation. Like animals backed into a corner, they'll react with brutal self-serving savagery, but the fear is ever-present.
This is the toxic food chain into which 17-year-old Josh (dull-eyed James Frecheville) is dropped. After his mum dies of a heroin overdose, the teen is taken in by sweet-voiced Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and the Codys, her three bank-robbing sons. Targeted by rogue police who'll all-too happily assassinate before asking questions, the family lives like caged rats. And the head rat is eldest Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), a ferret-faced psychopath whose lack of common sense is matched only by his utter ruthlessness. When police suspect his involvement in the murder of two officers, a senior inspector (Guy Pearce) identifies Josh as the family's weakest link and puts pressure on him to turn. This traps the kid between a rock and a very hard place. On one side he's got violence-prone uncles, on the other, corrupt cops. Worse, the film's third act reveals that Grandma Smurf is a compassionless lioness ready to devour her brood in order to get what she wants.
Michod has created a tightly wound, claustrophobic world of deceit, corruption and raw urban survivalism. Menace and dread lurks behind every interaction and not even sunny Melbourne, which occasionally peeks through the Cody bungalow's gloom, can lighten the mood. It's a slow-burning, gritty Greek tragedy that chronicles a deeply dysfunctional family's methodical self-destruction.
And Michod almost pulls it off. He's an instinctive visualist, crafting terse scenes, sparse dialogue and brilliantly composed shots (although we could do with a few less slo-mo moments). Blown-out whites and razor-edged silhouettes intensify the plotting without drawing attention. He's not afraid to keep the frame wide and watchful, executing both suspense and character moments with confidence. Though far from pristine, it's an approach that owes more than a little to filmmaker Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, Public Enemy).
Animal Kingdom's narrative choices are similarly strong. The story is derivative yet fresh, with unexpected plot turns both logical and shocking. Michod creates moments of real dread, ratcheting up tension with an accumulation of unnerving details and situations. The movie continually builds toward its awful outcomes, with Josh having to learn to outwit every other predator in the plot in order to survive.
Unfortunately, Michod has cast and scripted a hollow core as his protagonist. Blank-faced and emotionally mute, his beleaguered teen is nearly devoid of personality. We neither identify nor understand Josh's internal landscape and can only empathize with his situations in the most generic way possible. If Michod was hoping to create a twisted coming-of-age tale, he's failed. Josh is far too alienating, a weak counterpoint to the feral ferocity of the Cody brood.
The rest of the cast is more effective. There's the scary stillness of Mendelsohn's Pope, the low-key decency of Pearce and, most of all, the unsettling sweetness of sociopathic Grandma Janine Cody. Blond, petite and pushing 60, she chirps endearments while issuing hits and blackmailing cops. For all of Animal Kingdom's matter-of-fact violence, it's Janine's lingering mouth kisses to her boys that disturbs the most.
In a world with few choices, Animal Kingdom, as its title inelegantly makes clear, the only real imperative is survival. Michod's grim debut will undoubtedly thrill some and repel others but, crikey, you'll never look at Australia quite the same way again.
Opens Friday, Sept. 3, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.