Film of the week

Animal Kingdom (15)

4.00

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?