A morally thrilling crime thriller

When violence erupts in Animal Kingdom, it literally explodes on screen. No stylish slow motion, no hipster grand guignol, just lethal brutality, swiftly administered with casual and sickening indifference.

But the most horrifying violence in David Michôd’s literally stunning directorial debut (I had a headache leaving the theater — or was it an adrenaline high?) isn’t physical but emotional. Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville), the teenage protagonist, is a walking zombie, stunted — though he is a stiff-limbed adolescent hulk — by what we can only guess is years of neglect and abuse.

We first see him inert on a shabby couch in an even shabbier, dark apartment — actually, it looks like a fleabag motel room, with the front door opening off of a barren concrete walkway. The sagging figure next to him, in the dim glow of a television screen, is J’s mother, dead of a drug overdose. In what has to be the most poignant two or three minutes ever to start a film, J telephones his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver). He doesn’t know what to do, where to go, he says in a monotone. Can he come stay with her? Can she come get him? And does she remember where he lives?

Without giving too much away, what can be said is that J’s life goes swiftly and alarmingly downhill from there. Cast into the bosom of his long estranged family in Melbourne, he reacquaints himself with his three uncles: Darren (Luke Ford), barely older than J, who asks J to stop calling him “Uncle”; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), an anxious, tattooed dervish in a nonstop coke-induced frenzy; and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest brother and the ringleader of what we already know from the credits sequence is a family gang of bank robbers.

Another member of the pack is a genial friend, Barry (Joel Edgerton), who wants to leave the wild life of crime for a more comfortable existence with his wife in their banal suburban home. (Viewers will not be surprised when he is disappointed.) And looming over the whole larcenous brood is Janine, who ultimately, but calmly, makes Ma Barker look like Carol Brady.

Welcome to the jungle, where survival of the fittest means that any depravity can be justified by appealing to family values — of the felonious variety.

In its bare bones the plot of Animal Kingdom is a nasty Down Under version of The Godfather, with J — like Michael Corleone — a reluctant conscript into Ganglandia. But Michôd is unsparing in his anti-sentimental view of criminal enterprise — and of the authorities charged with combating it.

What separates Animal Kingdom from the pack of crime thrillers is Michôd’s psychological — or should that be anthropological? — insight and unflinching moral vision. No animal is innocent in this jungle, not even J, who early on shows a disturbing familiarity with the nuts and bolts of grand theft auto. (Not the computer game.)

J’s maturation, if it can be called that, from helpless and hopeless to a twisted mastery of his own fate is a rake’s progress through hell. But Michôd’s writing and directing grab us by the throat — and heart. Our sentiments implicate us in J’s destiny, grip our souls through each fiendish twist of duplicity and betrayal, and finally sanction even the most horrifying acts that J must numbly undertake to survive the amoral kingdom into which he, and we along with him, have been cruelly dumped.

Animal Kingdom is, to put it mildly, a demanding and difficult exercise that will upset easy notions of justice. But it is worth enduring (and fortitude is required) for the uniformly brilliant ensemble acting alone. Ford’s helpless fumbling for a moral fingerhold, Stapleton’s desperate self-destructiveness, Edgerton’s tenuous hold on domesticity, and particularly Mendelsohn’s feral cunning and reflexive cruelty — none of these can be matched, or forgotten. And Frecheville’s understated portrayal of inchoate manhood and Weaver’s wild-eyed but preternaturally placid representation of depraved mother love are masterworks of naturalism. As a bonus, the versatile and always convincing Guy Pearce makes an appearance as a sympathetic — or he is just manipulative? — policeman.

It’s early in the year and early in the decade. But true justice would not be served if Animal Kingdom did not survive as one of the finest films of both.

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