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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/