Rating: ★★★★☆

A dark tale from the criminal underworld of Melbourne, Australia, Animal Kingdom builds up layer after layer of tension until it reaches breaking point.

Beginning with worryingly detached teenager Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) witnessing his mother’s quiet demise after overdosing on heroin, the film sees his life spiral completely out of control after he is taken in by estranged grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver) and her household of malignant criminals.

Chief among the reprobates she dotes upon is J’s uncle, ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn) who has recently emerged from hiding and is itching to pursue a vendetta against increasingly violent and maverick members of the armed robbery division of Melbourne’s police force. Amidst flying bullets, awkwardly Oedipal family tensions, and shady drug deals, J tries to eek an existence and, most importantly, protect his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright).

Hope is presented by one of the few good cops in Melbourne, Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), but far from being faced with a simple choice of good or evil, ‘J’ is stuck in the middle of a chaotic power struggle and torn between family loyalties and a desire to avoid the fate of so many of the criminal associated around him.

Writer/director David Michôd pumps the plot full of tension through layers of increasingly dangerous and volatile characters who impose themselves on the lives of the two innocent youngsters. Ben Mendelsohn’s deranged portrayal of Pope leaves you unnerved whenever he’s on screen as every wayward glance, every strangely delivered sentence and every sudden movement indicates a potential menace to those around him.

Equally dangerous are his brothers and associates who lull us into a false sense of security through their comparatively reasonable approach to their criminal dealings.

Most terrifying of all, however, are the people who pull the strings behind the scenes. Bent lawyer Ezra White (Dan Wyllie) is a prime example, with his outward professionalism that paints a thin veneer over his rotten core. But chief among them has to be the saccharin-sweet grandmother ‘Smurf’ Cody. Jacki Weaver delivers a smile that embodies everything sinister about a controlling matriarch. She is loving, broody, and possessive, willing to stop at nothing to keep her family together and free from harm. Even willing to sell one wayward grandson down the river to protect her beloved boys? You wouldn’t put it past her.

Meanwhile Leckie is terrifying not for what he is capable of, but for what he is not: his utter impotence in keeping ‘J’ from harm hammers home just how precarious out protagonist’s situation is. And it is not long before he his precarious perch becomes a straightforward plummet to oblivion that will have your heart pounding and your mouth dry.

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This article was first posted on February 26, 2011