(David Michod, 2010)
If you know David Michod's name at all, chances are that's down to the several fine and celebrated short films he's directed which are all viewable on YouTube. Those films each display a particular mastery of mood and tone which is more than matched by Animal Kingdom, his debut feature. Here he conjures up a tone of slow-burning dread and tension which is maintained, almost painfully, throughout. The few outbreaks of actual violence are brief and excessive but they never lift that awful mood. It lies over all of the action and the characters like a fog, echoed by Michod's sound mix and Anthony Partos' brooding electronic buzz of a score.
An early voiceover clarifies from where this sense of menace originates; the criminals at the heart of the story are all afraid, all of the time, that the end is near, that soon they will be caught, a reference repeated later by Guy Pearce's Police Officer and lent weight by the sudden and bloody ends suffered by some.
All of the characters seem trapped in this world; if not by their circumstances (young protagonist J) then by their own nature (the monstrous oldest brother "Pope" and his equally terrifying mother), and each seems bent by the weigh of it. Michod superbly orchestrates the slow, sad symphony of destruction that follows, each character singularly, sensitively drawn and performed by a uniformly strong cast.
The films pallet is muted, much like its mood, bright colours dulled and bleached pale by Michod's careful lighting of his compositions, which always tellingly play up the conflicts and tensions within the scenes they depict.
His work in short films is evident in the short vignette he slips into the narrative at a crucial halfway point: just as the brothers plot revenge on the Melbourne Police for the death of one of their own, he introduces us to two young patrolmen arriving for duty, donning uniforms and beginning their nightshift. Then they get a call and we are with them when men approach suddenly from the dark and the night is exploded with shotgun blasts.
This sudden shift in perspective is brief but brilliant and indicative of Michod's insistence on the human truth in his story, the quiet, painful moments at the expense of the loud, and of dark beauty at the expense of the slick glamour so often applied to this genre.