Happily sampling nasty beats and riffs from the Scorsese catalog, the new Aussie crime saga Animal Kingdom begins with a hushed but breath-holding set piece: A gawky lad watches TV on the couch next to his dozing mum … until the already-summoned EMTs arrive and the boy calmly tells them she's OD'd on smack. They try to revive her, and the boy blankly waits beside them. As it becomes clear that she's dead, his eyes continually, habitually veer back to the stupid game show on TV. First-time writer and director David Michôd limns a dank and lost family history in just these few barely conscious gestures, and the toxic fumes of inherited misery fill your head.
Inheritance is the movie's fueling idea. Contrary to the title's suggestion of a sweeping, societal portrait of venality run amok, the action is restricted to a single Melbourne family of rampaging crooks — and the cops who want to kill them. The alienated teen is Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), who, with nowhere else to go, calls his garrulous grandmother somehow nicknamed Smurf (Jacki Weaver), and is accepted into her roiling nest of pathology. This chintzy suburban house is where up to half of the movie plays out, dominated by Smurf's three sons: Darren (Luke Ford), a surly post-teen visibly uneasy with following the family line; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a tattooed coke brute with azure eyes to die for; and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest, a bank robber off his meds and hiding out from the fuzz.
A heist buddy looking to straighten up (Joel Edgerton) tops off the testosterone, which heats up a bit in the face of Joshua's uncertain presence. With Joshua's narration, the template is GoodFellas but without the crescendos. We're experiencing the Cody clan essentially postfelony — they're all already hunkered down and waiting the law out. The first crime we see is a parking-lot assassination perpetrated not by a Cody but by a band of rogue narcs.
No speeding bullet, Michôd's film is kind of languorous, luxuriating in its own exaggerated sense of tragedy, observing the family as it self-destructs under pressure. Joshua becomes a pawn between his cousins and the police (fronted by Guy Pearce as the only reasonable voice in earshot), forced even to escape protective custody because the cops can be bought, too. The movie maintains a low boil, marbled up with a portentous liturgical score, but meanwhile, eggs do get cooked: Michôd's portrait of Melbourne's low-rent outlands is convincing, Mendelsohn's flabby jerk emerges as a fresh kind of sociopathic menace (not the kind that announces his madness with bulk physicality or glaring eyes), and Weaver's bubble-headed mom morphs into a backstabbing Ma Barker. When the SWAT team does finally descend, it's silently, suddenly glimpsed crossing a hallway in the background behind Joshua's back.
That opening moment, though, when Joshua glances from his dead mother to the TV — there's nothing else like it. Michôd's strenuous efforts to accumulate tension are often only just that. His movie pales beside the uneasy charge delivered by another recentish Australian film about three criminal bros: Rowan Woods' The Boys (1999), a nightmarish, neo-Cassavetes bolero also set largely in the mother's house, with David Wenham's wrecking-crew nutcase ex-con inciting a nerve-wracking degree of dread. Woods wasn't focused on much besides the purgatorial space between people, whereas Michôd wants a Greek epic but doesn't have the material. Animal Kingdom is a work of obvious ambition, and seeing a debut filmmaker swing for the fences like this is its own kind of moviehead satisfaction. Maybe he could redo it down the road, pull a Mean Streets on this Who's That Knocking at My Door.