PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2011, 12:00am


Starring: James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce
Director: David Michod
Category: IIB

To acknowledge how Animal Kingdom's creatures live up to the film's title, look no further than the opening scene. As his overdosed mother lies dead, Joshua 'J' Cody (played by newcomer James Frecheville) is emotionless, glued to the trashy game show on television even when medics arrive to resuscitate her. Then he calls his grandmother and tells her the news in the most nonchalant of ways: 'I know I should have said it slower and not blurt it out like that.'

What's scary is how well-adjusted J is: rather than a reckless rebel, the 17-year-old is quiet and well-behaved with no apparent penchant for drugs, drink or misdemeanour. That he's already the most humane among his clan is even scarier: while touted as a cops-and-robbers film, Australian director David Michod's first feature is more like a psychological thriller about a sociopathic family. So it is that the credit sequence shows the masked Codys in action in a heist, but the transgressions are more directed at members in their own ranks in a dog-eat-dog drama.

J is restarting his life with his long-estranged uncles, whose prospering careers ransacking banks have stalled: the police are determined to eliminate them, even on extrajudicial measures. Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), the brains and also the only 'outsider' in the Cody gang, gets shot by these rogue cops soon after he suggests they should go legit (he's already begun making money more safely in the form of day trading).

As the lawmen close in, the Codys wither, even as they live in a state of denial about their impending demise. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), who looks most like a thug among the Codys, is on the verge of a nervous meltdown; the impeccably dressed Darren (Luke Ford) begins peddling drugs - a trade scorned by his hard-edged siblings as 'gay'. Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn) lives up to his nickname, Pope, by encouraging others to confess to him about their fears, but actually inflicts more fear and humiliation on those who do talk.

The scariest of the lot, however, is J's grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver, left with Mendelsohn and Frecheville), who seems like a benign matriarch trying to pull them back from self-destruction, but harbours a beastly nature.

When she disparages Pope for 'taking it out on whoever turns up', she might as well be describing herself. It's such ruthlessness that dominates Animal Kingdom. By spurning the easy option of unleashing fire and brimstone to talk about a penchant for terror, Michod delivers slow-burning menace; J's rite of passage is gritty in its depiction of how such twisted circumstances would affect a whole new generation, when old-school crime-and-punishment tales are over.

Animal Kingdom opens today