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The ingredients are there in "Animal Kingdom" to provide a more customary crime family saga, following a timid newcomer as he rises up in the ranks, finding a taste for bloodshed as his tribe grows in power, only to be brought down by eager cops. Thankfully, this script seeks a more menacing, mournful path, examining the chaos and extraordinary paranoia of a wicked brood, starkly assessing the corrosive effects of lawbreaking with a convincingly cinematic stance.
After the overdose death of his mother, Joshua (James Frecheville) seeks shelter with his estranged grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), and his pack of bank robbing uncles, including the eldest, Pope (Andrew Mendelsohn). Unraveling due to police pressure, the family accepts Joshua in their darkest hour, with the cops finally closing in on the clan, hoping to shatter their concentration. Into Joshua's life comes Leckie (Guy Pearce), a detective hoping to convince the teen to turn on his family, helping to bring the brutes to justice. As Leckie applies pressure, Pope's suspicions about his docile nephew grow to a point of explosion, putting Joshua in grave danger as the cops and the clan declare war on each other.
"Animal Kingdom" would work splendidly as a silent film. It's almost a shame there's dialogue present to fully articulate motivations, since the picture mounts such tremendous characterization through spare acts of response, skillfully composed by director David Michod. The opening scene alone is a stunner, finding Joshua sitting calmly on a couch next to his dead mother, watching a game show on television while the paramedics arrive to assess the situation. We see Joshua's attention wane from his mother back to the T.V., suggesting a routine of daredevil drug use that's finally concluded, but the teen remains unnervingly unfazed. It's an effective opening shot in a motion picture that treasures such moments of focus, building a riveting momentum as Joshua's blank stare carefully contorts into consciousness over the course of the picture.
Working with a marvelous cast of fiery Australian actors, Michod (who also scripted the film) weaves together a suspenseful, often gut-wrenching tale of manipulation with "Animal Kingdom." While built with familiar parts, the picture isn't all that interested in the mechanics of criminal business, more fixated on the severity of paranoia, as the family faces renewed pressure from the cops once Joshua enters their lives. Michod doesn't barrel through a series of shootouts or pile on the snappy dialogue, instead soaking the picture in unease, from Janine's rather sensual control of her boys to Pope's increasingly reckless plans to keep Joshua in line. "Animal Kingdom" hits a few sickening turns of fate, but Michod masterfully controls the suspense, digging deeper into disorder and accusation, holding to a fantastic note of frustration as plans on both sides of the law soon crumble.
"Animal Kingdom" enjoys pops of violence and the burn of deliberation, keeping viewers guessing as Joshua faces cops and robbers, with no one able to provide the comfort he craves. It's an unexpected film, and one gracefully designed to extract a marvelous amount of tension without stumbling into cliché.