First-time director David Michôd has made one of the best Australian dramas since 2006’s Candy, which arguably contained Heath Ledger’s best performance (opposite Abbie Cornish) as a heroin addict trying to find love alongside his next fix. Michôd wrote Nash Edgerton’s awesome, scary short film Spider, and directed his own short, Crossbow in 2007. His feature début, Animal Kingdom, set in 1980s Melbourne and based largely on real events, is a simmering, taut thriller that is expertly written, stylishly filmed, and brilliantly well-acted. Like Crossbow, the protagonist of Animal Kingdom is an inert, almost autistic young man in his late teens. When his mother dies of a drug overdose, he moves in with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and his extended family of criminals and jailbirds.
As the film progresses, Josh, or ‘J’ as he’s nicknamed, is caught between a largely corrupt police force—save for Guy Pearce’s detective, possibly the only person who can help J out of his downward spiral—and a family who want him to protect their criminal activities. Formally, the film is brilliant: the cinematography is as brilliantly dark as the subject matter, and the economic use of music—mixed often with other sound effects such as low, drone-like reverberations—complements the scripted mood well. The film’s over-reliance on slow-motion montage sequences is initially off-putting, but by film’s end becomes a welcome stylistic flourish, particularly in one Matrix-esque shot inside a van that feels so awesomely unrealistic that it must have been a figment of the protagonist’s dampened imagination.
J’s navigation between the criminal underworld and the almost equally-corrupt police force is what makes the film so entertaining; the film itself, and every single supporting performance in it—from Pearce, to Ben Mendelsohn’s turn as one of J’s uncles, to Weaver’s fiery, Oscar-worthy presentation of the grandmother character—is absolutely worthy of all the praise being heaped upon it in Australia and in the States, where the film recently opened. If the Academy has its collective head screwed on right, Animal Kingdom will at least be nominated for Best Picture. It’s a film that, in the best way possible, lingers in your mind long after you’ve seen it.