The award winning film Animal Kingdom opens with a sequence intercutting detailed close-ups of a mass-produced copper-coated bas relief of lions, hanging in a suburban interior, with black and white CCTV stills of an armed robbery. The images are accompanied by hauntingly ominous music, composed by Antony Partos. They may be clues; they are certainly all we are getting. Once the action gets under way, no concessions are made to our lack of knowledge about the characters we are being introduced to. Not for us an Attenborough voiceover to guide us through the strange new habitat we are being shown. We are simply plunged in, forced to make judgements based on what we see and hear, without commentary or expository dialogue to fill things in.
The film is set in suburban Melbourne - with one excursion to a property near Bendigo - and centres on Josh, a seventeen-year-old who is forced to leave his mother's flat and start life afresh with his grandmother and his uncles, the Cody brothers. Josh, it quickly becomes clear, has fallen among thieves (or possibly been thrown to the lions). The Cody brothers inhabit a world that alternates unsettlingly between mayhem and death and backyard barbecues and suburban Chinese meals. They are criminals and thugs. They have no books, no aspirations, no interests other than the conflict they are engaged in with the Victorian police. Televisions flicker away in the corners of their kitchens and loungerooms: the images they display may distract the characters, diluting their understanding of reality, but they bring no awareness of life outside the bubble of violence and crime in which they live - nor, in the case of Josh's girlfriend and her family, do they give any warning that the Cody's world exists and may impinge on theirs. The Cody brothers are beasts, Melbourne is their territory and the story of the film is about how Josh finds his place within the shifting power alliances of his new herd.
Not unexpectedly, given the activities and outlook of its main characters, the film is fairly grim. This is not to say there aren't laughs - there are plenty, not least: 1) the scene in which Weaver complains about how difficult it is to find the positive in a particular situation; 2) the moment when, after it is agreed that a meeting must be held in a place where no-one any of the characters know would ever go, you see the chosen venue; and 3) the wonderful conversation between Pope and Barry about investing on the stockmarket. The acting too is brilliant. Ben Mendelsohn in particular is mesmerising as Pope, whom he portrays as a strange, wild, prowling psychopath, somehow even managing to transform his eyes into those of a mad kelpie at times (can this really be the same actor we saw as a sweet ingenue in Spotswood and nice young Eddie in Mullet?) Jackie Weaver is also breathtaking.
And yet, and yet. The film is gripping but there is something about it that makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the fact that the people it attempts to portray are the kinds of people who would never be part of its audience. This gives the enterprise a slight sense of a trip to the zoo - it becomes an opportunity for the middle class to press their noses against the glass and peer at the underclass in awe and wonder. There are also a couple of dud psychological notes in the plot - the behaviour of one or two characters (notably Nicole, Josh's girlfriend and her parents) is pushed beyond the plausible to serve the theme of unavoidable and all-enveloping rampant animal power. For me, the film's authenticity was momentarily undermined by these little tin-eared flaws.
Nevertheless, although perhaps it is not quite as clever as it it thinks it is, the film is utterly absorbing and the way that it plays its cards close to its chest works particularly well in our understanding of Josh. We form our judgment of him based purely on what he says and does. As a result, his behaviour as the film progresses often surprises us. Only later, looking back over the initial scenes, is it possible to recognise that there were hints strewn about that might have made it easier to predict what he does later on. This is a film you turn over in your mind for days after you've seen it. Despite the minor quibbles I have about the plot, the movie's ability to linger in the mind is a testament to its strength and power.