Animal KingdomGreen lightAnimal Kingdom is the debut feature of former film journalist David Michod, who has triumphantly countered the spurious argument that industry commentators are inevitably all talk and no action – sayers rather than doers, critics rather than creators.

The argument is spurious not because it’s untrue but because it’s irrelevant: cue familiar talking points about analysing versus making – i.e. does one have to be a chef to judge the quality of a meal? Does one have to build a house in order to criticise the look of another? Does one have to write a book to be able to credibly deconstruct the complexities of the narrative blah blah blah? And so on and so forth.

But the pertinent question regarding Michod, Animal Kingdom and the idea that film journos can become filmmakers is this: will the debutant director set a precedent and if so, who will be next to make the transition from writer to doer and where, pray tell, will it end? Should we expect a high-falutin’ weepie from David Stratton? A touching, self-directed doco about the day to day life of Roger Ebert? A Wiggles adaptation from Richard Wilkins? A Deep Throat sequel from, erm, Angela Bishop? (Sorry Ang, nothing personal)

Me, I’m struggling to choose between two high profile productions bankrolled by the University of Fine Taste, Planet Earth. Transformers 3: What a Load of Tossbots is nudging ahead but I’m also considering another Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake with Kyle Sandilands cast as Leatherface, no makeup necessary.

But back to Animal Kingdom. This terrifically directed Melbourne-based crime drama would make an auspicious debut for any filmmaker, and, if Michod never tops it, a pretty decent magnum opus too. It helps that the sayer-cum-doer secured a first-rate screenplay and a fabulous cast; more on them later.

Animal Kingdom is essentially a portrait of a dysfunctional family. Their blood ties to the underworld are simultaneously a glue that binds them together and a corosive energy that threatens to tear ’em apart like a poorly snapped Scotch Finger.

The story focuses on a laidback 17-year-old boy named Joshua, who moves in with estranged relatives after the death of his mother. Sometimes in life, without even knowing it, we roll the dice and take our chances. Kids in need of a family sometimes get the Brady Bunch. Others get this lot. Hard to say which is worse.

Joshua now lives under the watchful eye of his veteran crime lord granny Janine (played by Jackie Weaver) who’s a real piece of work. She’s been around the traps and then some. She knows how to handle the police, and her philosophy boils down to something like this: give ’em a cheerful demeanour and a bent smile and wait for ’em to bugger off.

Joshua also lives with her three criminal sons – rough, bogan types embroiled in crime and at war with local cops. One of them is Andrew Cody, aka Pope, who, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is a truly real menacing character. He’s rough, unhinged. You’re never sure what he’s gonna do next and Mendelsohn masters the role by making him both monstrous and strangely, fascinatingly humane. The story nabs bits and pieces from reality, including a plot-turning incident clearly inspired by the Walsh Street police shootings of 1988.

While the family continues to embark on crime, a detective, played by Guy Pearce, approaches Joshua and tries to convince him to leave the criminal world and dob his family in. Much of the conflict in the film stems from Joshua being caught between his family and the law.

Mendelsohn gives a career-best performance but kudos deserve to go all around. Jackie Weaver, Luke Ford, Joel Edgerton and newcomer James Frecheville are great as well, but virtually everybody in the cast is. Animal Kingdom is the sort of film in which the quality of acting is so high even pieces of furniture seem to contribute carefully nuanced performances.

David Michod, that sayer-cum-doer, that critic-cum-creator, that analyser-cum-maker – he strikes a triumphant mixture of realism combined with the dramatic rhythms needed for interesting fiction. Animal Kingdom is like Underbelly, but classy.

Animal Kingdom’s Australian theatrical release date: June 3, 2010.