There are feature-length directorial debuts of pleasant, cordial introduction. Then there are blindsiding handshakes of death-grip intensity — remarkably assured, assertive first impressions left by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Ben Affleck, Spike Jonze or Paul Thomas Anderson.
David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom is another such arrival. The Australian writer-director’s mercilessly riveting crime drama about a ferocious family of criminals is one of the finest spawns of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann or Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal gangster works.
Buffalo Bill wouldn’t have stood much of a chance in this Cody family — a vicious, eerily tight-knit clan of Melbourne bank robbers into whose vicious circle 17-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) is thrust.
Orphaned after his mother overdoses on heroin, Joshua goes to live with his calculating grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) and a herd of black-sheep uncles from whom his mother sought to shield him.
Darren (Luke Ford) is a few years older than J and selfishly along for wherever the criminal ride takes him. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a wild card prone to volatile responses. And what paunchy eldest Andrew, aka “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn), lacks in physical imposition, he compensates for with lethal irrationality.
J’s only plausible male role model rests outside the family — Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), the gang’s sensible leader, who’s looking to leave this grubby work for safer stock-market risks.
But as rogue cops mark Barry and the Codys for death and Pope’s ill-advised retaliation spirals out of control, Joshua realizes his kin will have no problem eating their young.
It’s clear that treachery and tragedy will line any of J’s escape routes — even one of witness protection offered by Guy Pearce’s kindly Detective Leckie. (Leckie seems cut from the noble cloth of Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon, but Pearce offers enough sleight-of-hand to suggest he could simply be establishing sufficient protocol to justify a massacre.)
With judicious use of violence, Michôd elevates the stakes in each dangerous twist — most notably in J’s race to ward off innocent bloodshed in a docile suburb.
Michôd also maintains dramatic command of his characters’ intricate lies and intimate ties, rendering the destruction around them even more devastating.
Frecheville’s boyish baby-fat and pimples mask the scars of someone who’s internalized more anguish than his evil uncles could ever suspect. Just as Frecheville’s impassivity reaches an apathetic point of no return, J undergoes an achingly sad, spittle-flecked meltdown in which he realizes a banal life’s comforts will always elude him, no matter how doggedly he pursues them.
It’s an outstanding inaugural turn, and Laura Wheelwright — as his girlfriend, Nicky — also dazzles as a girl anxious for adulthood and desperate to understand J’s family even at great personal risk.
These young actors are surrounded by a universally sturdy supporting cast, namely Mendelsohn and Weaver — both of whom should be on any awards organization’s short list come year’s end.
Resembling Chris Parnell were he facing 20 to life at Rikers, Mendelsohn keenly employs body language to indicate Pope’s depravity and mistrust. Even when he knows it’s a friend, Pope backs away from doors in anticipation of a betraying blast of buckshot. And nothing good can come of his evil leer at Nicky as Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” battles an audible drone in his mind. (Just as “Layla’s” piano outro is forever tethered to GoodFellas, so will this soft-pop staple be to Animal Kingdom — elevator-music accompaniment on a descent to the basement of Pope’s soul.)
Weaver’s every utterance feels like a fly’s invitation to a spider’s parlor. She looks harmless smiling and biding time with tea and TV, but Janine doles out Judas kisses as deadly as Michael’s to Fredo and exemplifies a hard rule of the food chain: Sometimes the most satisfied predator is the one exhibiting the most patience.
Never once does it feel like Animal Kingdom will barrel toward anything less than a grim resolution, but its stunning ambiguity is worth ruminating over for days.
However, one thing is clear by the end of one of 2010’s greatest films: When it comes to the territory of men who would be criminal kings, Scorsese has New York, Mann has Los Angeles, Affleck has Boston and, even after one movie, it feels like Michôd already owns Melbourne.