A moody, brooding ‘Kingdom’: Australian director makes impressive debut
You probably won’t see a better directorial debut this year than David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom,’’ the coiled rattlesnake of a family-crime drama opening in the Boston area today.
Its only competition, in fact, may be “The Square,’’ another gritty Australian release that played here this spring and that, like “Kingdom,’’ is a product of Sydney’s Blue-Tongue Films, a collective of smart bad-boy directors fascinated by the ways in which life goes violently wrong. The primary fault of the new movie is that it wears its ambition so openly, with the action often grinding down to slo-mo for added epic portentousness. There are worse crimes against the cinema but it gets in the way, in part because it’s more interesting to watch Michôd’s crooks destroy themselves and each other in real time.
Our designated innocent, 17-year-old Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), known as “J,’’ is a big lummox with a sensitive core; he looks like Channing Tatum on heavy meds but only because he has learned never to look anyone in the eye. His mother is dead of a heroin overdose when the film opens; J sits next to her blankly watching TV while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
With nowhere else to turn, he moves in with his uncles, a crew of hardened Melbourne bank robbers who are nearing the end of the line. The eldest and most psychotic is Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), a.k.a. “Uncle Pope,’’ hiding out from the Armed Robbery Task Force headed up by Lieutenant Leckie (Guy Pearce). Leckie’s a pleasant chap but his men tend to shoot first and plant the gun later. The most stable, even paternal, of the brothers is Barry (Joel Edgerton, another Blue-Tongue founder). Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) might be all right if he didn’t do so much coke. Darren (Luke Ford) is the baby, just a few years older than his nephew.
The boys and their alphabetical nomenclature are the products of Janine (Jacki Weaver), a chirpy, lethal mother hen who’s the most unnerving maternal presence since Margaret Wycherly offered her lap to the grown Jimmy Cagney in 1949’s “White Heat.’’ Janine works hard to look on the sunny side, but it’s difficult when her sons start dropping like flies. “I’m having trouble trying to find my positive spin,’’ she weeps after one particularly bloody turn of events.
Michôd’s previous work for Blue-Tongue has been as a writer, but his dialogue here is pared down to the bone. He’s not a showoff with the camera, either. “Animal Kingdom’’ is filmed with a slow, inexorable visual grammar that traps the characters in the frames and waits for the next awful event to unfold. The storytelling is heavy on mood and menace, with Antony Partos’s atmospheric synthesizer score sounding like something composed by Brian Eno’s evil twin.
The “normal’’ world is very little in evidence; J’s high school girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright) and her likably bland parents are as close as we get. The uncles see these characters as fools, weaker prey in the human food chain. The movie understands that, on the contrary, they’re blessed to live lives ignorant of fear. When that realization finally hits the young hero — when he realizes he’s too far gone to join them — it’s the film’s saddest, most uncompromising moment.
Throughout “Animal Kingdom,’’ Michôd pumps up his big allegory — animals R us — while hoping that if he makes his movie seem biblical enough we’ll overlook the holes in its logic. Nice try — seriously, very nice try — but the stylistic devices that may convince some viewers of this film’s importance ultimately ring hollow. Michôd’s not yet the writer or director to contemplate the evil that men do with narrative substance and moral authority. When he gets there, be ready to duck.