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Written by on August 12, 2010 

Animal Kingdom is a dazzling debut film from Australian filmmaker David Michôd that spawns across the seedy Melbourne underworld of criminals and the police that chase them. It is a strikingly assured film from a first time director in that it is both ambitious and challenging to audiences without ever becoming tiring. The plot is loosely based on a series of real life events involving the murder of two police offers, better known as the Walsh Street shootings that occurred in Melbourne in 1988. Starring a cast of all star Aussie actors including Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver and a terrifying performance from Ben Mendelsohn that echoes after the screen fades to back, while also pushing newcomer James Frecheville into the spotlight among the veteran ensemble.

The opening credits of the film is oddly operatic and sets an overall tone for the themes of animals in the wild, out to kill one another. The remainder of the film opts to be more restrained in terms of lavish indulgent cinematic moments, often having scenes of violence short and poignant. Joshua Cody (Frecheville) better known as ‘J’ comes home to find his mother dead from a drug overdose. With no where else to turn, he heads for shelter to his estranged family members, including a doting grandmother named Smurf (Weaver), mother to the troublesome Cody boys. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), Darren (Luke Ford) and Pope (Mendelsohn) are armed robbers and criminals and an immediate bad influence on the young mind of J. When tragedy strikes the family, they are forced to retaliate against the police causing their relationships to downward spiral into divided loyalties.

Jacki Weaver does a remarkable job of creating a character that is both nurturing and sinister with the character of Smurf, in particular when trying to act loving to J while in the back of her mind she would kill him in a heartbeat. Guy Pearce offers a different kind of guidance as detective Nathan Leckie who through various attempts tries to lure J to help the police takedown his family. This leads to walking a taught tightrope for the naive youngster J who is torn between doing the right thing and remaining loyal to his blood. There are moments of philosophical existentialism as J tries to comprehend the meaning of it all and becomes loss amidst a sea of bad influences and disturbed minds.

Despite some moments that seem to lull in terms of pacing, Animal Kingodm is a compelling examination of the inner workings of a family caught in the seedy under belly of greed, corruption and murder. The film took home the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and it’s easy to see why. The style is refreshing and the material is treated with delicate and composed frames, giving a constant sense of foreboding as the film pulses along. Michôd definitely displays a strong grasp of dramatic tension, holding the viewer’s attention while weaving an often time complex narrative. It’ll be interesting to see what his future holds for this talented director and the budding talent he has created with Frecheville’s performance. Until then however, Animal Kingdom does an excellent job of fulfilling the desire to experience a rich atmosphere of conflicted characters.

8 out of 10

What did you think of Animal Kingdom? Do you plan on seeing it?

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