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ANIMAL KINGDOM is a tough and gritty new Australian film IAN JOHNSTON believes you should go and see it…

Release Date: 11th July, 2011 / Running Time: 113 mins / Certificate: 15
DVD Extras: Interviews (David Michôd, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Laura Wheelwright, Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Ford) / Making Of / Trailer

Winner of the World Cinema Jury prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Animal Kingdom is an instant classic Australian neo ”“noir crime movie, out on DVD and Blu-ray on 11th July. The film is completely different from the flippant fantasy crime pictures produced by the likes of Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino. This gritty Melbourne set drama has a real air of menace and cold, hard authenticity about it for most of its duration, though gallows humour of the darkest shade lurks in the shadows.

Despite the protestations of the first time director/writer David Michôd to the contrary, you suspect that Animal Kingdom is in fact based upon reality and that the names have been changed to protect the guilty. The picture withstands comparison with the last great contemporary Australian crime picture, Andrew Dominik’s Chopper, also set on the Melbourne mean streets.

After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, confused 17 year-old Joshua “J.” Cody (James Frecheville, who captures the scared, vacant aspect of his character) rings his rarely seen grandmother Smurf Cody (a terrific performance by Jacki Weaver) for help. Smurf brings J to live with her wayward sociopathic family of armed robbers and drug dealers: her sons, temporarily absent older brother ruthless bank robber Uncle Pope (the excellent Ben Mendelsohn), wired, tattooed cocaine freak Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), simple, child-like youngest son Uncle Darren (Luke Ford), Smurf’s favourite because he is the son most dependent upon her, and longstanding family friend and partner in the family crime business, Barry ”ËœBaz’ Brown (Joel Edgerston). For many years the Cody family and Baz have been at war with society in the city and the forces of law and order. The uncontrollable Melbourne armed-robbery squad have now decided that enough is enough and they are going to deal with the Cody family once and for all. The word is out that Pope is marked for death.

Barry knows that their days of Wild West style armed plundering are definitely numbered, and has even taken to speculating on the stock market with his ill-gotten gains, but for Smurf’s sons, in particular the obviously homicidal paranoid schizophrenic Pope, there is no other path to follow but crime. When the armed ”“robbery squad begin to hit back at the family, Pope decides that they must go on the offensive. Initially J enjoyed his exciting new criminal family, and the perceived untouchable status it gave him, but he soon realises that they can’t protect him, even if they wanted. Senior policeman Nathan Leckie (another brilliantly controlled turn by the fabulous Guy Pearce, equal to his performance in LA Confidential), spots that J is the weak link in the families line of defence and starts to work upon drawing him into the witness protection program. But Pope and his immoral lawyer Ezra White (Dan Wyllie, a featured player in Chopper) are also aware of the possibility that J will turn.

The less you know about the plot of Animal Kingdom the more you will enjoy its ominous, ever increasingly intense atmosphere (heightened by Antony Partos’ brooding score) and the uniformly excellent ensemble acting by the gifted cast. Though the film’s climax is arguably not as believable compared with the action that has preceded it, Animal Kingdom relentlessly reveals the creeping neurosis behind the audacious live fast die young facade that the Cody sons present to the world. Rather than relying on incessant action sequences, David Michôd skill fully ratchets up the tension while striping any perceived ”Ëœglamour’ from the criminal, or police, underworld. It’s difficult to single out one performance but Weaver’s Cody Smurf is a fearsome character, a modern day Ma Barker who presents herself to the world as a doting, amiable Melbourne grandmother, until she is ready to strike. She really did deserve her Best Supporting Actress nomination at this year’s Academy Awards.

Animal Kingdom will undoubtedly feature on many best films of the year lists come December. Make sure you don’t miss it.

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