Sort of like an Australian Goodfellas with less sweep and more grubbiness, David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom tracks a teenage orphan’s introduction to a life of low-level crime. The movie begins with hulking teenager James Frecheville finding his mother dead of an overdose and calling his grandmother, Jacki Weaver, who invites him to come live with her. She lives in a flat full of thugs, some of whom the kid is related to, and all of whom take him under their collective, molting wing. Two major problems, though: the cops (led by Guy Pearce) are all over the family’s criminal operations, making it tough for them to maneuver, and when Frecheville’s most level-headed “uncle” is assassinated by rogue cops, the gang is left in the care of crazy Ben Mendelsohn, a paranoid, dangerously single-minded fugitive.
First-time feature-director Michôd borrows a little from other hip genre filmmakers; he apes Quentin Tarantino by throwing a kitschy Air Supply song onto the soundtrack, and aestheticizes roughhousing in ways reminiscent of Nicolas Winding Refn. But Michôd also sandbags himself with a charisma-free hero, whose most dramatic act in the first two-thirds of the film is scraping the burned bits off his toast. Even when he’s telling his own story, Frecheville describes the sudden changes in his life with a noncommittal “Kids are just wherever they are, and they do whatever they do.” At times, Frecheville’s lack of self-awareness threatens to suck all the energy out of the film.
Thank goodness Animal Kingdom is so stylish and sharply plotted. Plus, Michôd counters Frecheville with two strong characters: Weaver, a sweet-faced lady with a well-honed sense of self-preservation, and Mendelsohn, who tests the mettle of everyone in his circle by talking slow and staring dead-on, leaving them wondering whether he’s totally off the beam, or more aware than anyone realizes. Weaver and Mendelsohn easily manipulate the needy Frecheville, who’s just looking for a home. As the villains turn Frecheville’s suburban oasis into a prison, Animal Kingdom joins in the tradition of brutally unsentimental Australian crime dramas like The Boys, in which the stakes are low, except to the people staring down the barrel of a gun.