When Joshua "J" Cody's (James Frecheville) mother dies of a drug overdose, you would think that his life couldn't get much worse. And you would be wrong. J goes to live with Janine (Jacki Weaver), the grandmother his mom had sought to keep him away from, and his uncles, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), and Darren (Luke Ford). Just before J came to stay with them, the Cody boys and their partner Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton) committed a string of high-profile armed robberies that caused Pope to go into hiding and brought a lot of attention from the crooked cops running the city's Armed Robbery Division. Too soon, however, the powder keg that is this battle between cops and robbers is set off with the murder of one of the boys and their subsequent retaliation against the police. While J attempts to keep some distance between himself and his uncle's war, detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) senses J to be the weak link in the family tree and puts pressure on him to turn against his uncles. With Pope on a rampage and the cops closing in, J is forced to fend for himself, employing a plan that puts him in danger from both sides.
"Animal Kingdom" is an Australian movie featuring an all-Australian cast of primarily unknown actors (with the exception of Pearce). When you add the "unknown factor" to the sheer strength of the well-defined characters, you almost feel like "Animal Kingdom" is a documentary, with the film's director getting the most in-depth look at illicit activities that anyone has ever been granted. That is to say, this is a character driven drama that you can almost confuse with real life. Pope is a complete sociopath who only just manages to keep his murderous impulses hidden under a thin veil of laughter which dies away as his desperation grows. J, on the other hand, is stoic and conflicted; a kid who just wants to have a normal life but always seems to find himself in jacked up situations into which he brings everyone around him (see: girlfriend). An entirely sympathetic figure, I found myself torn between wanting to see J rise above the stench of his family while at the same time hoping he'd be able to exact his revenge for the harm that is inflicted on him over the course of the film.
And then there's Janine, the sugary-sweet grandmother on the surface who controls her boy's criminal enterprise in the vein of Laura Linney's character in "Mystic River." She's a dark, twisted character who will stop at nothing to protect her children, even if it means sacrificing her grandson. Weaver earned a Best Supporting Actress nod for her role here and the merits of her nomination fully come to light. The acting is tremendous across the board, with Frechville earning a "Keep An Eye On This Kid" mark in my mind. "Animal Kingdom's" shortcomings are minimal and almost exclusively revolve around accent confusion (please excuse my American incompetence) and a few overly complex plot points that were difficult to follow. Regardless, it is an intense, hard film that doesn't pull any punches and absolutely glues the viewer to the screen.
Want a second opinion? See Marshall and the Movies take here: "Animal Kingdom"