Equal parts crime thriller, neo-western and coming-of-age story, the Australian drama "Animal Kingdom" puts its moral compass into a tailspin. Initially, first time writer-director David Michod introduces a basic sense of right and wrong adopted by the most casual entries in good-versus-evil sagas, but he later endows his cruel world with a fittingly tilted vision of justice. Our sympathies lie with alienated teen Josh (James Frecheville), a Melbourne youth whose innocence gets challenged by his older gangster relatives. Michod situates Josh as the moral center, then sneaks in a finale suggesting nothing is sacred. Josh grows up when he grows bad.
Michod's cold, hopeless vision of life and death will appeal to fans of early Coen brothers noirs, not to mention those with a penchant for the bleak quest-driven westerns directed by Anthony Mann. Like those movies, "Animal Kingdom" uses the brutality of the genre to evade standard sentimentalism. Michod makes Josh sympathetic without molding him into a hero. Instead, he's a survivalist.
An ironic juxtaposition sets the tone in the opening minutes: Josh sits next to his mother moments after she overdoses on heroin, dividing his gaze between her corpse and a game show playing on television. He then makes a casual phone call to his grandmother (Jacki Weaver), the deceptively fierce matriarch of the family, to alert her of the death. In two scenes, Michod quickly assembles his deadpan style -- moments that should be tragic instead take place with matter-of-fact finality.
This secular vision liberates "Animal Kingdom" from predictability, heightening the tension. When Josh moves in with his four deadly uncles, anything can happen, and developments inevitably take a dour turn. His one apparently well-meaning uncle Barry (Joel Edgerton, half the sibling filmmaker team behind "The Square," another recent Australian noir) drops out of the picture fairly early, leaving Josh in the care of his remaining uncles: Coke fiend Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), outspoken Darren (Luke Ford) and Pope (Bend Mendelsohn), the oldest and most dangerous of the bunch. When Pope's scheme to murder a pair of self-interested cops leads to a police investigation, the family dynamic falls under the scrutiny of the law.
Throughout each development, Frecheville's performance becomes central to the movie's spell. Josh, perpetually stoned and soft-spoken, watches his uncles' misdeeds with an unreadable blank stare. Until the closing scenes, he appears more present than active in the story, although signs point to his gradual psychological transition as the family continually wrongs him. His fury seems bound to erupt any minute, but since he never makes his motives clear, Josh's extreme shyness turns him into a figure likable for his simplicity. Unlike the events surrounding him, his outlook is always uncomplicated and comically direct. "Why do you love me?" asks his girlfriend Nicky, clueless to the larger dangers at hand. Josh doesn't hesitate. "Because you're nice," he says.
Nobody else in Josh's world gives him that security. Pope's self-interested behavior know no boundaries, and his murderous acts eventually relegate him from standard bad guy turf to full-on monster. "Animal Kingdom" consistently builds to dramatic crescendos with the unpredictable nature of Josh's family, whose ghoulish pack mentality nearly mirrors that of the maniacal blood relatives in Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects." Nevertheless, Michod's style eschews horror and instead relies on the anticipatory nature of suspense. His screenplay emphasizes quiet exchanges, a slowness that makes the punctuation of occasional gunfire particularly effective. The crawling pace sometimes veers into monotony, but most of the time, the stillness enhances the thrills.
As Josh's world begins to implode, "Animal Kingdom" adopts a claustrophobic feel. Bodies drop and hopelessness prevails. "I'm having trouble finding my positive spin," moans Josh's grandmother, played by Weaver in an awards-worthy performance -- if only because her hypnotic, power-hungry stare defines the chilly mood.
The sole respite from the darkness arrives with the introduction of investigative officer Leckie (Guy Pearce, in what may amount to his best role since "Memento"), the single person who attempts to rescue Josh from his destructive environment. Leckie's epically profound monologue, delivered to Josh as a life lesson from the father he never had, provides the metaphor of the movie's title ("Everything fits in the order"). The precise impact it has on Josh, however, remains unclear until the very last scene.
With a calculated series of final shots, Michod manages to find an emotionally satisfying climax without falling prey to the temptations of a happy ending. Nobody has full control of the chaos at hand, especially those responsible for creating it. "If you ever want to talk about anything, I'm here," says Pope, an obvious psychopath, to his cowering nephew. By the time the uncle tries to lend a hand, the logic of "Animal Kingdom" guarantees that his assurance is dead wrong.