2011 Running time: 113 Certificate: 15 Rating: 4

Synopsis

The question of whether blood is thicker than water is given a stern examination in this gritty Aussie crime drama. Newcomer James Frecheville is 'J', a callow 17-year-old who finds himself trapped in a lions' den when he moves in with his grandmother (Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver) and her career-criminal sons. As J becomes wrapped up in the family's murderous business, a pragmatic detective (Guy Pearce) offers him a way out. But when it comes to survival, the difference between nearest and dearest can be a matter of life and death.

Director

  • David Michôd

Cast

  • James Frecheville

  • Guy Pearce

  • Ben Mendelsohn

  • Jacki Weaver

  • Joel Edgerton

Review

The Neighbours they didn't want you to see crawl out from behind the barbie in writer-director Roger Michôd's abrasively arresting feature debut.

Set in the working class suburbs of Melbourne, it tells the age-old tale of an impressionable youth who falls in with the wrong crowd. Only in this case, it's his own family.

Michôd sets his wrong-footing tone from the start with Frecheville's Josh - aka 'J' - staring at the TV while his mother apparently dozes on the sofa beside him. Then the paramedics turn up. She's not asleep. She's just died from a heroin overdose.

One phone call later and J is soon in the bosom of chirpy grandma "Smurf" (Weaver) and his remaining family: the armed-robbing, drug-dealing Cody boys.

With Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) currently hiding from bent cops, it's up to his hot-headed brother Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and old associate Baz (Joel Edgerton) to introduce J to the family business, though youngest uncle Darren (Luke Ford) doesn't share their enthusiasm.

So far, so small time. But when Pope eventually comes out of the woodwork, J is suddenly plunged into a vicious circle of murder and retribution.

As the family closes its paranoid ranks, anyone who knows anything is in danger - including J's girlfriend. So should he put his trust in sense-talking Detective Leckie (Pearce) and take his offer of witness protection? Or does family always come first?

Devoid of fuss and gloss, Animal Kingdom follows Ray Lawrence's Lantana and Jindabyne as the next distinctive landmark in Australian crime cinema.

None of your Lock, Stock larks or one-last-job capers here, just a compelling story of low life in the suburbs.

It's not without flaws - some plot developments are murky (especially the legal stuff) while others stretch credibility (you'd hope Australia's armed police teams communicate better than this). And the Codys' slimy, coked-up lawyer is a cliché.

But if it doesn't always add up, the performances are generally spot-on. Mendelsohn, in particular, is a genuine worry as the quietly unhinged Pope, while Pearce smartly captures the impotent rage simmering beneath Leckie's calm exterior.

Then comes Weaver, stepping out of the shadows to dominate proceedings as the outwardly cuddly mother hen who will do whatever it takes to protect those in the pecking order of her affections.

Whether her Oscar nod will move her up the Hollywood food chain remains to be seen, but good on 'em for paying attention.

Elliott Noble