There's a line from the Citizen Kane trailer (an exuberantly weird little number, consisting of Orson Welles introducing us to all the cast members) that I like to reference whenever I can: "Dorothy Comingore is a name I'm going to repeat: Dorothy Comingore. I won't have to repeat it much longer, you'll be repeating it." Welles rather misjudged the degree to which his little picture would jumpstart the actress's career, but I like the spirit of it anyway, and in that spirit:

David Michôd is a name I'm going to repeat: David Michôd. I won't have to repeat it much longer, you'll be repeating it.

Michôd isn't a Hollywood starlet, but an Australian writer-director, and his first feature, Animal Kingdom, is the most amazingly self-assured debut in quite a long time. It's a crime drama, and plenty of first-time directors have started off with crime dramas, especially in the last 15-odd years, but most of them do not step forth so fully-formed, handling the raw materials of cinema as though they were born to do it. And while Animal Kingdom is not a perfect movie, it's a perfect version of itself, which is really the most we can ever ask of any work of art.

Inspired by the 1988 murder of two Melbourne police officers, Michôd's story centers on Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville), a 17-year-old whose mother dies of a heroin overdose in more or less the first seconds of the film. Actually, Animal Kingdom's first, rather long, shot is of the Australian edition of Deal or No Deal playing on a rinky-dink TV, a bold opening gambit that establishes the shallow, easy-money-worshipping middle-class lives of its characters (all the more so when we find out that J is watching the show sitting next to his mother's corpse, though it's not certain that he knows she'd dead). And from then on, it's off to the races as J ends up moving in with his grandmother, a tiny, grizzled woman named Janine, who universally goes by "Smurf" (Jacki Weaver), and her sons: Andrew, or "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn), an armed robber and one of the most wanted men in Melbourne, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a drug dealer in bed with the police narcotic force, and Darren (Luke Ford), barely older than J himself, who idolises his brothers. Along with Pope's friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), the whole clan mostly hides out in an overstuffed home, hiding from the police and being driven to an extreme even worse than their already edgy idling state.

To give away more would be a disservice to Michôd's excellent machine (and even as it is, I've really only described the first couple of scenes), though this being the sort of film it is, it's not terrible shocking when good cop Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) shows up midway, trying to do what he can to help J out of a shatteringly horrible situation, both because it's morally right and because he hopes that by flipping J he can finally put the Cody gang out of business. It's also not giving away much of anything to say that most of the drama centers on J's gradual movement from dull teen, peripherally aware of how fucked-up his mother's estranged family is, to being faced front-and-center with the violent truth of their lifestyle.

The real star of the show anyway isn't the well-trod story - though a more breathlessly exciting crime story has been hard to come by recently, unless you caught the French import A Prophet - but the showmanship with which Michôd and his crew present it. Animal Kingdom is, and I mean this in the best possible way, a hard film: loud, brazen sound and heavily punctuated editing (courtesy of Sam Petty and Luke Doolan, respectively) give the film an almost industrial feeling that matches well Adam Arkapaw's at times metallic cinematography; while Michôd's handling of the frequent acts of violence is postively brutal. The death of the two cops that kick-starts the main line of the plot in particular is shockingly matter-of-fact and unexpected, not exploiting gore for its own sake but absolutely sickening us with its starkness; it's this moment above all that proves Michôd is a fella to keep watching for.

It would be easy for the human element to get lost in the midst of this sensory beatdown, but the cast is entirely able to keep above the fray, remaining incredibly distinct and memorable throughout everything that happens (though Frecheville is almost too convincing as a disaffected teen male, if you catch my meaning). No points for guessing that Weaver, she of the film's already-iconic line readings, is a standout: like a fairy-tale grandma from hell, with her diminutive stature and broad smile and crinkly eyes, Weaver's cheerful psychopath is the most bone-chilling aspect of the whole movie, the kind of woman who might give you a hug and then wait till you've turned around to plunge a knife between your ribs. Her overwhelming presence has tended to dilute the impact of some of the other performances in the popular reception of the film, though all possible praise also need to go to Mendelsohn, playing the most sociopathic of the Codys with lumbering menace, playing up his character's lack of intellectual agility (some quickly tossed-off dialogue suggests that he's on meds for an unnamed emotional disorder) and never letting us forget that he would kill anybody for almost any reason.

Insofar as Animal Kingdom has an particular flaw, beyond its familiarity (and that's not much of a flaw for a genre movie to have), it's that the stakes are ultimately never extremely high. A boy we don't much connect with falls into a pit of vipers that we connect with very much indeed, thanks mostly to Weaver's irresistible energy, and we never really doubt that things will end up where they do, and the whole bold and brassy affair doesn't really have much to say about the world outside of its own walls. The final moments suggest a psychological depth that gives it more punch that it had before, but as a result that same depth is somewhat entertaining; in the end, it's just a hugely entertaining, unforgettable showcase for a bunch of people before and behind the camera playing for the rafters and doing a great job of it. Well, darn.