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Australia 2010
Directed by
David Michod
112 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Animal Kingdom

Synopsis:  Josh "J" Cody (James Frecheville) is a 17-year-old whose mother dies of a heroin overdose. He heads off to live with his estranged grandmother, Smurf (Jackie Weaver), who is mother to the Cody brothers: Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), an armed robber in hiding from the police, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a hot-headed drug dealer, and baby of the family, naïvely aspiring crim Darren (Luke Ford). When Pope’s friend Baz (Joel Edgerton) is shot by police, Pope wants revenge. Soon J finds himself caught between the only family he has and a senior policeman Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) who may be his only way out.

This film has just won the Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and I can surely see why. It’s a cracker of a crime story – a sort of Underbelly (without all the sensationalism and sex) meets coming-of-age story, meets family-in-turmoil tale.

As movie-goers we are hooked on American versions of this type of story, so why not start watching home grown versions, especially when they are done with such fine direction, smart scripting and top ensemble acting as this one. And of course there’s the usual appeal for me of the film being shot throughout Melbourne, a city always seen as a bit of a staid grand old dame, but in this film, as something a lot more dangerous and unsettling.  These criminals are all able to blend in as your average next-door-neighbour type of folk, and young J is in fact not a criminal at all, until he is drawn into the web of his highly unpleasant family.

Seeing this story very much through J’s eyes gives us an interesting perspective. We are there with him throughout the tale and feel for his search for belonging. A basically peaceful, if taciturn lad, but being surrounded by the sort of violence displayed especially by Pope and Craig, and being asked to do “favours” for them, I cannot help but be affected. And then there is your truly middle class family, from which J finds a girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright). The ramifications of her seemingly innocent association with J will be horrific and far-reaching.

Veteran of Aussie film, Jackie Weaver, makes Grandma Smurf a wonderfully ambivalent character. She oozes apparent warmth and good cheer, but seems to definitely have a slightly kinky bent for kissing her “boys” too long and heartily on the lips. But this woman is not what she seems and the treachery that lurks behind her nana-smile is chilling.  

If Smurf puts us in mind of real-life crime matriarch, Judy Moran, then the parade of crooked cops is certainly close to what we’ve read about over the years in Melbourne’s daily papers. Not to mention the corrupt cocaine-snorting lawyer Ezra (Dan Wyllie), who makes the profession seem even worse than it is already perceived to be! The cast playing the three brothers, along with Edgerton as Baz are nothing short of superb. Mendelsohn seems to have crim down to a fine art these days, Edgerton is as good as I’ve seen him, while Stapleton as Craig, the volatile drug dealer creates a force to be reckoned with.

The ever-surprising Guy Pearce brings the only hint of normality and empathy with his character, Leckie, and we get to see a little behind the badge through a glimpse of his home life.

With its themes of belonging, betrayal, loss and the dog-eat-dog struggle for survival, Animal Kingdom is a truly fine addition to the criminal underworld genre of films, Australian or otherwise.




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