Set in a lawless Melbourne underbelly and arriving with a haul of critical acclaim, David Michôd’s stealthy debut gained overground traction when its star Jacki Weaver joined 2011’s Golden Globe and Oscar nominees.
Melissa Leo won Best Supporting Actress at the Globes, but even if Weaver doesn’t bag a baldie, that’ll be no slight on the actorly pedigree in this knuckle-tight noir about a criminal family’s endgame.
Against the backdrop of a grubbily lived-in milieu, the cast exhibit grim magnetism even as the story’s Darwinian drive – survival of the deadliest – verges on overstatement.
James Frecheville’s Joshua ‘J’ Cody is our blank-slate entry point on its world, a 17-year-old landed in the care of grandma Smurf (Weaver) after his mum ODs.
In true noir style, his fate looks set as the Codys’ jaws clamp round him, the seemingly loving Smurf being a malign matriarch whose grown-up bad lads are a lags’ line-up of dead-eyed dropouts, coke-peddlers and armed thugs.
The worst is Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), a psychopath who initiates extreme measures in a cops-v-crooks dirty war and eyeballs J (and his girlfriend) suspiciously when a good dick (Guy Pearce) sees the teen as his in-road to muzzling the Cody mob.
The film’s reliance on J’s impassivity proves problematic. That emptiness is necessitated by his role as our window on an underworld, but Frecheville’s dazed delivery saps the substance needed to justify one particularly gut-churning, late-film killing.
Michôd’s emotional reticence otherwise plays as restraint, cutting to his film’s nihilist core with a clarity free from the excesses that occasionally betray a first-timer’s hand.
With his anthropological eye recalling early Scorsese, Michôd synchs the simmer of dread to character and setting, a suburban jungle of parched interiors and colourdrained exteriors where the strong prey in packs on the weak.
The leads add flavours vital to any plot this bleak: conviction and a whiff of unpredictability. Weaver’s soft-spoken way with a threat serves indelible chills, while Mendelsohn’s baby-sagging chin and blank stare barely conceal terrifyingly impulsive tendencies.
Between them, they generate a pervasive menace that turns a tyro’s genre workout into a superior crime pic, fleshing out the implication that there’s no way out of this world once you’re in.
The only question is: kill or be killed?