Happily sampling nasty beats and riffs from the Scorsese catalog, this new Aussie crime saga begins with a hushed but breath-holding set piece: A gawky lad watches TV on the couch next to his dozing mum...until the already-summoned EMTs arrive and the boy calmly tells them she's OD'd on smack. As it becomes clear she's dead, his eyes continually, habitually veer back to the stupid game show on TV. First-time writer/director David Michôd limns a dank and lost family history in just these few barely conscious gestures. The alienated teen is Joshua (James Frecheville), who, with nowhere else to go, moves in with his garrulous grandmother Smurf and is accepted into her roiling nest of pathology. This chintzy suburban house is where up to half of the movie plays out, dominated by Smurf's three sons: Darren (Luke Ford), a surly post-teen visibly uneasy with following the family line; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a tattooed coke brute; and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest, a bank robber off his meds and hiding out from the fuzz. With Joshua's narration, the template is GoodFellas but without the crescendos. No speeding bullet, Michôd's film luxuriates in its own exaggerated sense of tragedy, observing the family as it self-destructs under pressure. But the director's strenuous efforts to accumulate tension are often only just that. Still, Animal Kingdom is a work of obvious ambition, and seeing a debut filmmaker swing for the fences like this is its own kind of satisfaction.
Mendelsohn as the robber off his meds.
Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., Aug. 27. Rated R. 112 minutes.