Loosely based on a real-life Australian crime saga, David Michôd’s promising but scattershot feature debut Animal Kingdom thrusts a wary young rabbit into a den of jackals and watches impassively to see whether or not he’ll make it out alive. After his mother dies from a drug overdose, Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) has no option but to move in with his maternal grandmother (Jacki Weaver, deliciously malevolent) and several uncles, all of whom are wanted by the police. Predictably, the lead detective on the case (Guy Pearce) zeroes in on new arrival J as a possible turncoat, but family loyalty proves much too strong. That is, until the most violent and paranoid uncle, “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn), begins to question that loyalty anyway, as well as that of J’s innocent girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright).
Expanding on events that are well-known in Melbourne—it all went down in the late ’80s—Michôd the screenwriter does a terrific job of slowly and exactingly building to a riveting final confrontation. Michôd the director, however, diffuses a great deal of that tension en route via irritatingly mannered formal gimmickry, plus a penchant for having his male actors do menacing by just staring impassively into the distance. Worse still, Frecheville, who’s meant as our identification figure, comes across as a black hole of lumpen blandness. Animal Kingdom holds your attention, but I’d almost rather have read the script.