Directed by David Michôd
The eyes have it in Animal Kingdom, David Michôd's feature debut about treachery in a Melbourne family—from the dull-eyed gaze of "J" after his mother ODs, to the heavy drunken bottomless stare of his psychotic fugitive uncle Pope, to the terrifying friendly glint of matriarch Smurf. Teenaged J (James Frecheville) comes to live with Smurf, Pope, and other criminally inclined uncles, and the resulting slow burn has been marveled at since the film's prize-winning showing at Sundance. Australian reviewers crowed over their promising 37-year-old director (who paces scenes with confidence) and his fidelity to the city's corrupt reputation, but the reserve and intuition to its emotional currents makes it more than the compressed Sopranos it may sound like.
With characteristic economy, the Cody family's background in robbery is sketched in a montage of security stills; later malfeasance, folded into the larger drama, feels like an extension of inescapable familial aggression. Michôd skillfully lets us negotiate a wary identification with J, as he grows complicit with the family's wrongdoing yet strives to maintain some normalcy with a civilian girlfriend. Watching his precocious poker face from beginning to end yields a portrait in moral identity forged under utterly unforgiving conditions.
Jacki Weaver (as Smurf) and Ben Mendelsohn (Pope) underplay almost diabolically, their performances scarily embodying the power plays that course under the surface. In this climate, an investigating detective (Guy Pearce) seems woefully out of his depth, his canned monologue to J almost laughably overshadowed by the teenager's experience. If there's something distinctively Australian to the technique, it's Michôd's use of heady stillness, a sense of gathering danger (which the much-praised slab-of-synth soundtrack can push too hard). Animal Kingdom is the summer's black valentine to those for whom a visit home means watching your back.
Opens August 13