Taut, human-scale Aussie gang drama

Laura Wheelwright, James Frecheville as high school sweethearts sucked into conflict between cops and a crime clan.
Laura Wheelwright, James Frecheville as high school sweethearts sucked into conflict between cops and a crime clan.
Posted: August 27, 2010

The difference between Animal Kingdom, a razor-sharp Australian gangland drama, and its generic Hollywood counterparts is clear from the get-go, when a strapping, stony-faced teen finds his mother dead - a heroin overdose - in their grim little flat.

The scene is low-key in tone and tempo: no overblown dramatics, no swooping overhead cameras. And while big stuff - chases, gunfights, police interrogations, murder - ensue in writer/director David Michôd's taut and terrific crime story, it's played out on a decidedly human scale.

That hulking 17-year-old with the OD-ed mum, J (James Frecheville), is at the center of , set in the working-class precincts of Melbourne, among a class of people who don't really work at all. Unless you count drug dealing and armed robbery as work.

Suddenly orphaned, J gets on the phone with his grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), and soon moves in with the bright-eyed matriarch and her three grown sons, a Snap, Crackle, and Pop of motley hoods. Pope Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) is lean and menacing, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a testy, tattooed cokehead, and Darren (Luke Ford) is the kid brother, lumbering and dim.

At first, it looks as though J will just become one of the gang, picking up a gun and falling in lockstep with his uncles. But things quickly get messy: Two policemen are shot and killed, a cadre of corrupt cops are after Pope, and a mustachioed Melbourne police detective, Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), is looking to get J to turn against his clan, to tell him what he knows.

Smurf, whose relationship with her "boys" has a creepy sexual vibe, gets fiercely protective as the law men - both the good ones and the bad - start circling, closing in. And J's high school girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), gets sucked into the whirlpool - an innocent bystander, unexpectedly drawn into this seamy, suburban outlaw culture.

Like The Square, the startling Down Under noir released a few months ago, Animal Kingdom explores the down and dirty side of human nature, fraught with greed, suspicion, and betrayal. Frecheville's performance as the big kid tossed into the fray - his loyalty tested on all sides - is understated and compelling, and Weaver, as the wily (grand-)mother protecting her brood, offers a deliciously sinister turn. Smurf - watch out for this woman!


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

onmovies/.

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