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
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
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.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?