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Animal Kingdom (15)

The Independent review: Where the really wild things are

David Michôd's first feature as writer-director begins with an absolute doozy of a scene. A teenage boy is watching TV on the sofa while his mum is slumped next to him; only when two ambulance medics show up do we discover that mum has overdosed on heroin, and isn't dozing – she's dead. It's the matter-of-factness that winds us up. Did the boy already know what was up? The film supplies quite a shock in its last scene, too, between which poles Animal Kingdom stretches a taut, tense drama of bad blood in the Melbourne underworld. It will rivet your attention all the way.

The boy is Josh Cody (James Frecheville), known as J, a tall, reticent 17-year-old whose only recourse now is to phone his estranged grandmother and ask for help. "Mum kept me away from her family 'cos she was scared," says J in voiceover, and by degrees we find out why. The Cody grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), is the scariest-looking old blonde since Donatella Versace, and happens to be the lion queen of a notorious criminal brood. (Cody, lest we forget, was the name of Cagney's mother-fixated gangster in White Heat.) Middle son, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), is a tattooed thug knee-deep in drugs; the youngest, Darren (Luke Ford) is a suggestible weakling; the eldest, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is the meanest, and currently on the Armed Robbery Squad's Most Wanted list. Only Pope's old partner, Baz (Joel Edgerton), shows J any true avuncular kindness, and he gets shot dead early on in the story.

It's essentially about the struggle for a boy's soul. The world J gets "thrown into" is narrow, clannish and mad, though the film is careful to build its mood of dread in small increments. His initiation into his uncles' rule of fear comes when he's riding shotgun with Craig, and a couple of hoods insult them at a traffic junction. Craig follows their car, and when the hoods park up J is instructed to get out and confront them with a handgun. We can see his hand shaking as he does so.

What truly indicates the savagely territorial nature of the family is their killing of two patrol cops in revenge for Baz's death. The subsequent investigation brings the boy into the orbit of a senior detective, Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), who will try to steer him through the jungle of corrupt fellow officers, witness protection programs, and a sleazeball lawyer in the Codys' pocket. The gravest threat of all, however, is from his own kin. J unwittingly puts himself and his girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), in danger by seeking shelter from her middle-class parents, who have no idea how this "animal kingdom" preys on its victims.

Michôd is delving into a netherworld of barbaric lawlessness that Australian cinema has previously explored through the likes of Chopper and Rowan Woods' 1998 thriller The Boys, also about a family of criminal brothers. Animal Kingdom is even darker in its characterisation, particularly in regard to Weaver's den mother. A huggy narcissist with her sons, Smurf gradually reveals herself to be as ruthless as any Mafia matron. Her ages-old split with J's mother turns out to be a disagreement over the rules of a card game ("'cos you can't play a joker in a no-trumps hand"), which speaks volumes of the latter's shrewd decision – perhaps the only one she ever made – to keep her son away from the family. Smurf's reliance on psychobabble has a comic undercurrent: when she receives some tragic news she wails, "I'm havin' trouble findin' a positive spin", while absolving herself of any personal responsibility for the outcome.

The casting of Ben Mendelsohn as Pope is more problematic. His weak chin and slouching-schoolboy walk have become him as the sensitive loner of homecoming dramas (Mullet, last year's Beautiful Kate), but his runtiness rather undermines him as head of the pack, the one they're all meant to be scared of. He grows more menacing as the story proceeds, though I felt the moral squalor of his murdering a female character too sudden and inexplicable to work. I wonder if he should have played the police detective and Guy Pearce taken the role of Pope – though Pearce, the most notable name here, is very persuasive as Leckie.

Animal Kingdom misfires in a few other small ways. Antony Partos's electronic score, for the most part an atmospheric enhancement, is turned way too loud at times, blotting out lines of dialogue in its reach for the epic.

There's also something very coy about the build-up to a trial that will determine the fate of various characters. As we watch J being coached through a cross-examination, we have to decide which way he'll jump – which side he'll betray – and then, as if to mock our anticipation, Michôd bypasses the courtroom altogether.

Yet this sharp-eyed study in the ways of underworld survival gets far more things right than wrong. The casting of newcomer James Frecheville looks risky at times, such is his stolid, dark-browed demeanour, but he comes through very strongly in the last third.

David Michôd, a newcomer himself to feature films, directs his actors confidently and writes in a plausible lowlife demotic: he has watched and absorbed Scorsese without succumbing, thank heavens, to imitation. This is no "G'dayFellas". "Our game, it's over, mate," says a character here. Michôd's looks like it's just beginning.