An impressive Australian psychological crime drama set in Melbourne. It’s always a tad strange to see your own city onscreen and hear all the familiar street and suburb names, and it feels rather unsettling when a film dives into your city’s dark underbelly. The mood here is set early on, as the movie opens with what looks like an ordinary family scene, with a teenage boy watching Deal or No Deal and his mother slumped on the couch next to him apparently asleep. Except that she’s actually overdosed on heroin, and a couple of efficient paramedics take her away in the next scene.
She dies, and her son Joshua, an awkward, mumbling, taciturn 17-year-old, goes to live with his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), or Smurf as her sons call her for whatever reason, who seems like a warm, loving, apple-pie-baking grandma straight out of a fairytale. She’s also a devoted mother to her three sons, all of whom are career criminals. The eldest son, nicknamed Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is a charismatic psychopath who deals in armed robbery and is in hiding from the police who’d like nothing more than to shoot him on the spot. Then there’s Craig, a drug dealer with an explosive temper, and Darren, the youngest son who’s a bit of dim lightbulb and just follows his brothers. Soon, young J gets pulled into their world, and finds himself involved into the deadly war between his uncles and the police.
Skilfully lit and edited, with an ominous soundtrack and a deliberately slow pace that’s punctuated with bursts of violence, Animal Kingdom is a dark dark movie. Its oppressive atmosphere of evil is only relieved by the appearance of a homicide detective (played by Guy Pierce with his usual chameleonic flair), who seems a genuinely decent man and tries to get J to testify against his uncles and pull himself out of the criminal world. J is sympathetic mostly because of his youth – not to knock the actor’s performance but this is a kind of movie where a fairly blank, passive protagonist is surrounded by much more colourful, interesting and dynamic side characters. Mendelsohn and Weaver are standouts in particular – this movie put her on the Hollywood map and at first I couldn’t see why because Smurf is mostly in the background for the first half or so. But when the movie zooms in closer, Weaver’s character’s sheer malevolence and ruthlessness take your breath away; it’s no wonder she got noticed.