Australia has been the birthplace of a strong run of crime dramas in the recent past - consider the films Lantana, Little Fish, Chopper. The Australian TV series Underbelly has also enjoyed comparisons to The Sopranos recently. The crime genre seems to be a particularly good fit for Australia's smaller-scale film industry. Now short film director David Michod's Animal Kingdom shows that there are still more dark stories to mine in the seedy underbelly that hides behind Australia's sun-drenched suburbs. This debut film is a crime thriller that impresses right from the start.

The story is set in the Melbourne crime underworld, a kind of suburban Wild West where the Cody brothers, a gang of armed robbers, are being watched by the near-out-of-control armed units of the Melbourne city police. There is a palpable sense of steamy menace throughout as cops and criminals eye each other up across the streets, with neither side seemingly bound by any rules. The police murder just as willingly as the criminals.

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Our eyes into this world are those of the Cody's teenage nephew Joshua 'J' (James Frecheville). Orphaned after the overdose of his mother (who was the one who fled the Cody nest), he has no choice but to be pulled into the orbit of the Cody boys and their adoring matriarchal mother Smurf (Jacki Weaver), who looks and acts like a discomfort-inducing harridan straight out of a Hitchcock film.

Things start to unravel rapidly when the psychopathic eldest Cody son Pope (eerily played by Ben Mendelsohn), sees his partner and best friend, Barry 'Baz' Brown (Joel Edgerton), shot down by the police in a set-up. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), the middle brother with a hair trigger and coke habit, and more gentle youngest brother Darren (Luke Ford) before long are escalating things alongside Pope into a shooting war with the police. Soon they are dragging Joshua with them. As the police close in, Joshua finds a possible escape route by co-operating with cynical veteran Detective Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce). But the closer he gets to Leckie, the more he arouses the suspicions of his brothers and the dirty cops they can tap. Either way, even if he gets out alive, his normal life is gone.

Michod's film is somewhat slow burning, and though the plot isn't entirely surprising, every other facet of this tight drama is reassuringly solid. The main cast are uniformly excellent at bringing to life the Cody family unit dynamics - from James Frecheville's minimalist performance as J to Jackie Weaver's magnificently scheming turn as Mama Smurf. There is also a vein of black humour running through the film, most of it emanating from the banality and plain weirdness inherent in the Cody family. The raw sense of atmosphere is palpable - this literally is an animal kingdom masquerading as a pleasant suburb in Melbourne - where only the law of survival of the fittest applies. Michod has created a deeply pessimistic but fascinating world lit by excellent cinematography and set to a moody score. Here the only way to live is to play by the rules of the jungle. There is no real way out.

Animal Kingdom won the World Cinema Jury award at Sundance in 2010. A prize well deserved.

Reviewed on: 17 Feb 2011
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After the death of his mother, a 17-year-old boy is thrust precariously between an explosive criminal family and a detective who thinks he can save him. Plus read our exclusive .
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