Animal Kingdom

Joshua (newcomer James Frecheville) is a 17-year-old at the seam of the Melbourne underworld. When his mother died, he moved in with his uncles, a trio of criminals led by eldest Pope (Ben Mendelsohn: Knowing). It’s not a very happy place to be. Tensions simmer as an aggressive police task force puts the squeeze on the family, boiling over when a family friend is gunned down by renegade cops. Pope declares vendetta, and Joshua is drawn into the thick of violent grudge. Now the teen’s forced to find his own place in the order of things as he’s pinned between predacious family and lawmen.

Director David Michod, in his feature debut, expertly crafts a taut and patient film, unfolding story at a steady, deliberate pace. Dread builds as Pope and doting matriarch Smurf (Jacki Weaver: Three Blind Mice) delve ever lower, through paranoia and evil acts, in their quest for revenge and self-preservation. Joshua holds center as the bewildered naïf, blank-faced and nervous prey for two packs of predators: the family trying to keep him loyal and the police, fronted by one good cop, itching to turn him witness. It’s a tense ride as he navigates the two camps in search of safe haven, and the question of his ultimate decision proves an intriguing draw.

Flashpoints of action dot the journey. Brief and vicious bursts of gun violence tick a countdown to familial destruction. There’s no stylization, only a candid eye on evil. The film never breaks pace from its ominous march, and the moments that truly drive this film are quiet and sinister. Smurf is a cruel, determined, and manipulative villain who plots matter of factly behind a thin, bubbly exterior. Pope, for his part, is a malevolent dead soul, cruel and casual in his destruction.

Character carries the film. Villains set the tone, pierced by a hopeless blip of light in Leckie (Guy Pearce: The Road), the detective who believes he can save Joshua. The kid, for his part, is utterly believable as the tragic hero, an ordinary soul trapped in desperate circumstances.

All said, it’s a powerful film offering a very believable perspective on the evil side of human nature and the consequences for ordinary lives sucked into the morass. Not really an upper, per se, but a great piece of filmmaking.

Great crime drama • R • 112 mins.