Dir. David Michôd
(2010, R, 113 min)
★ ★ ★ ★

Animal Kingdom begins with possibly the best opening scene from any film I’ve seen in the last year. It introduces us to a teenage boy, Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), watching a television game show alongside his mother. But what appears to be a mundane scenario is revealed to be something quite different, something traumatic and sad. The rest of the film functions much the same way. As Joshua tells us early on, his experiences seem normal to him as he’s experiencing them. He settles into the status quo, and though he knows there’s something not quite right about his family, he doesn’t see how drastically his life is about to change.

His grandmother is Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver). His uncles are Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), and Darren (Luke Ford). The uncles, along with their friend Barry (Joel Edgerton, who wrote and co-starred in another impressive Australian noir, The Square) are armed robbers laying low because of increased pressure from the police. Joshua comes to live with this extended family, just in time to be churned up in the dirty waters of their criminal enterprise.

James Frecheville, as Joshua

I won’t describe the plot in any further detail. You should see it for yourself. I’ll explain only how brilliantly the film dramatizes Joshua’s conflict. It’s a classic rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma with his volatile family on one side and an insinuating police force on the other, and the film gives us ample reason not to trust either. The title refers, in part, to a speech by Guy Pearce as Leckie, a detective investigating the Cody gang who explains the pecking order to Joshua. It’s only because of the protection of alpha predators, Leckie explains, that Joshua has survived at all, and they can’t protect him anymore. This reminds us of an earlier scene where Joshua watches his uncles roughhouse, shown in slow motion like nature footage of wild dogs. But the detective is just another predator, whose motives are clear and whose methods are suspect: he singles out the boy because he senses his weakness, and if he can stir up the uncles’ paranoia about Joshua’s allegiance, perhaps he can get a testimony out of the poor kid.

The cops aren’t the good guys any more than the robbers are. Our only point of sympathy is Joshua, played by Frecheville in a still, quiet performance with something much deeper behind the eyes. He’s a moral and psychological blank slate who absorbs, learns, and adapts to his surroundings. He’s only ever a criminal out of obedience to his family and only an informer because the cops make him look like one. With tremendous subtlety, Frecheville shows how an innocent gets the lay of the land and learns how to survive. In this way, Animal Kingdom is very similar to the French film A Prophet, which was also about an impressionable young man warped by the criminal underworld, but I found this film more satisfying, more urgent. It hums with suspense in every scene.

It’s written and directed by David Michôd in a remarkable feature debut. He shows confidence behind his slow, stalking camera and paces the action with perfect, simmering tension. He uses a terrific score by Antony Partos that is less orchestral than tonal, rumbling ominously under scenes. Among the actors, Jacki Weaver has been singled out as the sinister mother (she was just nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). She’s excellent, but I wonder why there hasn’t been more attention for Ben Mendelsohn, playing the oldest and most ruthless of the brothers, who chills us to the bone with a single look. (Think John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone, minus the core of humanity.) He’s all feral aggression and ruthless, primal instinct. He’s a dominating force, but is he any less a product of his environs than Joshua is? Did he make the laws of the jungle, or did the laws of the jungle make him?