- Written and directed by David Michôd
- Starring Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn and James Frecheville
The two big prize-winning dramas at Sundance Film Festival were Debra Granik's Winter's Bone in the American program and the Australian drama Animal Kingdom in the World Cinema category. They're almost companion pieces - hair-raising stories of teenagers who become unwillingly initiated into a nightmarish adult world of their criminal families.
While the phantasmagorical Winter's Bone, based on Daniel Woodrell's novel, is pure Southern Gothic, the Melbourne-set Australian entry is more in the Clint Eastwood line - a criminal procedural tilting to Greek tragedy.
The opening scene is a daring gambit: 17-year-old Josh (James Frecheville) sits watching a game show while an inert blonde woman rests on the sofa beside him. Then the emergency crew arrives, and the boy, while stealing glances at the television, tells them she's his mother who has just overdosed on heroin. Is this credible or absurd? In any case, it sets the tone for a film where the horrific and banal are intimately entwined.
Newly orphaned Josh calls his grandmother for help and then tells us, in a brief early voiceover, how he came to realize why his mother separated him from the rest of the family. Grandma (Jacki Weaver) is a plump bleach-blonde with a cat smile who does an almost convincing impression of suburban mom. Nicknamed Smurf, she bestows her mouth-kissing affection and plays psychological games on a household of macho men, three of them her sons by various fathers and the other a criminal friend. They're a group living outside the law in a state of everyday fear, more so because the cops have declared that hunting season on them is open.
The gang includes Baz (Joel Edgerton), who has a notion he'd be better off giving up on crime and getting involved in the stock market. There's Darren (Luke Ford), an introverted stoner, and the combustible Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a speed dealer with a penchant for sampling his own wares.
The most dangerous of Smurf's three sons, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is introduced by reputation well before he appears onscreen. Though physically unimposing, Mendelsohn creates one of the most disturbing villains in recent film memory. He skulks about with a sideways shuffle like a sick animal, on the watch for something weaker to devour. Soon enough, he finds his victims.
When one of his brothers is murdered by the trigger-happy cops, the long chain of events begins to unfold. Pope loses his frayed connection to rational thinking, and the precarious balance of power in the family falls apart. He takes brutal revenge. A straight-arrow detective named Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) focuses on Josh, partly because he's possibly salvageable and partly because he's the family's weakest link.
In this game of gang warfare, the brothers are also quick to understand their nephew is their greatest vulnerability. The second half of the movie ratchets up the tension as Josh finds himself the pawn of rival teams of police, venal lawyers and sociopathic criminals in an increasingly appalling endgame.
Animal Kingdom isn't perfect: Some performance moments are over-ripe, and there's an episode of arbitrary cruelty that's excessively creepy. At worst, though, the scale of Michôd's ambitions seems at odds with the meanness of the characters. That's a small flaw in a debut film, and it promises even more powerful work to come.