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Cinema Signal: A morally bleak crime thriller that's a must for any serious moviegoer.

. "Animal Kingdom"

It may never be known how many filmgoers skipped this film because of the Disneyish title. In my humble opinion, it's the only error in judgement this intense character-driven crime thriller is guilty of. The only animals we're concerned with here are of the human variety--ones who carry guns, knives and controlled substances. Australian writer-director David Michod presents one of the coldest versions of a bandit culture in which only the lives of your own family are of any value. The germ of morality has little to feed on in this Melbourne garden of drugs led by animalistic predators.

The moral and emotional balance in this universe rests on the shaky shoulders of a boy too young to understand--let alone contemplate--these weighty issues. But 17-year old Joshua "J" Cody (debuting James Frecheville), in his impressionable, unformed state, falls subject to the protections of his relatives when his mother dies from a heroine overdose. Grandma Janine "Smurf" Cody (rather brilliant Jacki Weaver) is only too glad to assume her family duties by taking her handsome, quiet nephew under her roof to be molded by the brood of armed robbers she calls her sons. Ma Barker had nothing on this cool, loving, twisted lady.

Josh remembers (in a narrative voice) that mom had made a purposeful choice to keep him away from his grandmother and uncles, saying only that she was "scared." Of what, time and events will tell the youth as he lives out an extraordinary coming-of-age that will include being marked for murder.

Starting out with his uncles as mentors, whom he admires and wishes nothing more than to please, he witnesses the once care-free cool of confident men crumbling into fear and paranoia.

At first, Josh is kept out of any real involvement with the family occupation other than Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) testing his courage in a confrontation with a rival gang. Josh is carrying on a serious relationship with high school sweetie Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) and her unsuspecting family. But when Uncle Andrew, aka "Pope," (pernicious Ben Mendelsohn) the eldest brother and criminal leader of the band, returns from hiding after the police have sworn to kill him on sight, the tensions in the household take on a more ominous edge.

Suddenly, there's no lightness, no banter, among them. Family friend and gang member Barry (Joel Edgerton) says, "Our game is over. It's getting too hard." You can feel the tingling nerve endings as the prescient words spill out.

While Ma is showing nothing but support and pride in her boys with her always-embarassing kisses on lips, and cheerful--if sinister--optimism, the Melbourne cops, not known for their professional methodology, are closing in. Everyone in the family but Josh knows it. He has no idea of the animal kingdom he's been living in until Uncle Craig is shot to death at the wheel of his stopped car by a cop.

At this point, the ruthlessness of revenge heightened by fear goes into overdrive. In any criminal underworld, such an act must be answered, and uncle "Pope" shows what sociopathic crime looks like. When he orders Josh to steal a car and have it ready for him and his brothers at two AM, it's no small elevation of the boy's involvement. But, even after revenge is taken, no one thinks a score has been settled. For that, many more bodies have to dot the landscape.

Without explanation, Josh breaks off with Nicky. He bears the Boyd stain. Maybe she and her family don't.

Guy Pearce, the only internationally recognizable name in the crowd, appears at around midpoint as stirling lieutenant detective Leckie who has to contend with a "shoot first, ask questions never" approach practiced by the corrupt force of uniformed goons under him. Recognizing that Josh's willingness to answer his questions in a forthcoming manner is a sign of naive innocence, he offers the boy an avenue of escape from the danger of returning "home." How these issues of life and death play out is achieved with extraordinary realism. The naturalistic portrait of cold animalism has never been more uncompromisingly drawn or realized, or more threatening to the after-images you take to your bed at night.

When you have such a galvanizing grip on your audience, understatement is your friend and Michod knows it. When Josh has been placed in a safe house after his interview, we find him awakening in the morning to one of Lieutenant Leckie's most brutal cops sitting, watching over him. Few words are uttered... as though it's a stalemate. And then we notice the 800-pound gorilla in the room--a .45 automatic on the bedstand inches from Josh. All he has to do is reach for it and another Cody will be taken off the map.

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The Soundtrack

Michod creates an atmosphere of lethal portent with every means at his disposal, most of all with the magnetism of his cast and the malignant threat of his chief antagonist. Further, he employs an acoustic-electronic score by Antony Partos to express things better left unspoken. The music is so effective that one might wonder if, when Michod the writer realized the power in his composer's tracks, he didn't slash dialogue or narration out of his script like any well-disciplined screenwriter with the right cinematic instinct might do.

Other than the title, there isn't a false move in this taut drama, and it can well serve to alert the film world of a brilliant, new creative voice on the scene. It'll be interesting to see if Michod's excellence in storytelling and filmmaking, marked by as memorable a cast and set of characters as you'd ever want, will match "Animal Kingdom" in stylistic originality or effectiveness with his next film. I wouldn't bet against him and, after the impression he made on me with this piece of work, that's an exciting thing to look forward to.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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The Cody uncles.

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