Thrills and spills in Oz’s underworld

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Animal Kingdom is a crime thriller, but not the typical Hollywood variety.

Set in Melbourne, Australia, the film is a dark, brooding portrayal of the criminal underworld, warts and all.

Seventeen-year-old Josh is the central character, and we meet him in the shocking opening scene when his mother dies of a heroin overdose.

Josh, a moody monotone teenager, is played by James Frecheville in his debut movie performance.

He is put into the care of his grandma Janine, played by Jacki Weaver, who was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the role. And deservedly so.

Janine has four sons, all immersed in crime and drugs, yet she lets them continue because she benefits from their dirty money.

Matriarch Janine has an incestuous strangle-hold on her sons, and Josh has no choice but to fit into the family.

He soon realises these are no small-time crooks. They are an organised outfit of armed bank robbers and drug barons whose every move is being watched by the police.

If Josh’s life wasn’t desperately depressing before, it is now.

From the moment a gun is thrust into his hands, the naive teen is forced to make the transition from boy to man.

And when one of his uncles is shot dead by a corrupt cop, things step up a gear.

The eldest brother Andrew ‘Pope’ forces the family into an act of retribution and Josh, while not directly involved in the act, finds himself under the police spotlight.

Leading the police investigation is Detective Nathan Leckie, played by Guy Pearce.

Pearce, who famously turned down the role of Batman in Christopher Nolan’s adaptation, gives a brilliantly understated performance as an ambitious detective determined to catch the men he’s been after for months.

Newcomer James Frecheville captures the tragedy of Josh’s situation through an almost mute performance that perfectly portrays the void in this young man’s life.

A moment of intense and unexpected emotion creeps in, however, when Josh realises the severity of his predicament.

But the stand-out performance is that of Ben Mendelsohn who plays uncle Pope.

Like Pearce, he has come a long way since his days in Neighbours, and this film is a testament to him as one of Australia’s best known character actors.

Mendelsohn is menacing as jittery drug addict Pope. He is truly terrifying - a ticking time bomb of mental illness and a loaded gun in the wrong hands.

The family’s eventual demise is largely caused by his bad judgement and extreme paranoia.

Ultimately, it is the climate of suspicion he creates among his own family that means no-one is safe. It’s every man for himself, but is anyone brave enough to come clean and confess?

Animal Kingdom makes for uncomfortable viewing. It is bleak, raw and gritty in its portrayal of violence and the criminal underclass.

The criminals themselves are not glamourised, their crime doesn’t afford them a rich gangster lifestyle.

They live a scared, lonely existence, rooted in suburban domesticity and family dysfunction.

But despite the film’s intense lows and grey backdrop it’s a fast paced thriller with twists and turns. A real credit to first time writer and director David Michôd.

There are scenes that will leave you shaking, even where there is no bloody pay-off.

And as the body count builds, even a car slowly reversing down a driveway becomes a menacing sight.

It all culminates with an ending that is both shocking yet inevitable. Go and see it if you can stand the suspense.

by Hayley Gallimore

Star rating ****