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Animal Kingdom (15)

Ryan Gilbey is impressed by a bold attempt to reinvent the crime thriller.

Animal Kingdom (15)
dir: David Michôd

Nothing in the Australian thriller Animal Kingdom embodies the film's blend of horror and languor quite like its opening scene. Seventeen-year-old Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), also known as "J", is slumped on the sofa beside his mother, watching Deal or No Deal in the middle of the afternoon. That's not the shocking part. As paramedics file in, it becomes clear that the woman is dead, or as good as dead.

J stands aside, his gaze drifting away from his mother to the television. With his slack jaw and plodding walk, the boy has a gormlessness about him but he isn't stupid: he has the wherewithal to add a year to his age when the authorities ask, so that he isn't taken into care. Then he phones Janine (Jacki Weaver), his grandmother. There's not so much as a wobble in her voice when she learns that her daughter is dead from a heroin overdose. Desensitisation runs in the family.

J's mother always kept him away from the rest of the Cody clan. Once he comes to lodge with Grandma, it's easy to see why. His uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is an armed robber who pops home to intimidate everyone after a spell on the run. Pope is small and ferrety; he doesn't lose his temper or resort to undue force (he even makes a murder resemble an overemphatic embrace). But everyone gets twitchy around him. He keeps nominating himself as a confidant to other men; his goading tone of voice taints the offer with menace.

Another uncle, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), is a drug dealer who chops out lines on the coffee table while Janine looks on fondly. With her habit of adding "hun", "love" or "sweetie" to the end of every sentence, Janine seems harmless and twee but there is something increasingly sinister about her, not least in the hold she has over her sons. The slightest demand for affection sends one of these strapping thugs scurrying over for an inappropriate smooch. It's possible that she got her ideas about parenting from watching Anjelica Huston in The Grifters.

In an earlier age, Janine would have been portrayed as the sort of high-camp criminal matriarch played by Shelley Winters in Roger Corman's 1970 B-movie Bloody Mama. But Animal Kingdom is a subtler and loftier work that acknowledges only in passing the trashy buzz of the crime genre. It goes out of its way to thwart certain expectations, as though serving notice of its elevated ambitions: the heists that have prompted a street war between the Codys and Melbourne's armed robbery unit are glimpsed only in still photographs, while some fussy editing manoeuvres us around a pivotal court case so we get the preparation and the aftermath but nothing in between.

Meanwhile, most of the film's showdowns happen in humdrum settings. One electrifying scene takes place in a supermarket checkout queue where Janine spots Leckie (Guy Pearce), the gentle detective who wants J to testify against the family. There are violent ambushes and callous murders here but the most devastating acts are carried out under the cover of civilised conversation. The grandeur of the film's title contrasts pointedly with parochial details, such as Janine's teatime gossip with her neighbour ("I don't mind his personality but his mouth is so off-putting . . .") or J's alibi when quizzed by Leckie about a shooting (he says he was watching Funniest Home Videos).

The animal theme is taken about as far as it can go by the film's writer-director, David Michôd, who slightly overcooks the metaphor. Antony Partos's sinister electronic score has as its motif a low rumble that suggests a lion's roar and Leckie is saddled with a speech about nature's hierarchy and the criminal food chain. Pope and Craig are seen grappling grotesquely in slow motion like beasts at play and a hunted man tries to escape from his pursuers across a savanna-like plain in the manner of a gazelle fleeing a cheetah. (Only David Attenborough's voice is missing.)

Yet despite some beginner's mistakes, such as an uncertain pace or the lengthy scene-setting narration, it would be churlish to bemoan a film that attempts something as unusual as remaking the gangster movie in the image of Life on Earth and Sylvania Waters.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants