The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, goes the saying - but is it nature or nurture that makes it so? And, when your lineage is one of implacable, almost callous cruelty and crime, does it even matter if it's genealogy or environment that makes you follow their footsteps? Australian director David Michôd's acclaimed debut feature, seemingly at first a slow-burn crime thriller, ends up enmeshing it with that precise question, as the Melbourne police draw ever closer to a criminal family, the Codys, laying low after a string of high-profile robberies. Mr. Michôd, however, sees the story through the eyes of a newcomer - gangly, surly Joshua aka J (James Frecheville), the only son of the clan's estranged daughter.

     After she dies, J is taken in by his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) and meets the uncles who run the gang: the youngest, quiet and uncomfortable Darren (Luke Ford) and the outgoing and party-loving Craig (Sullivan Stapleton). But the ringleader is the eldest, Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), known as Pope, a disquieting fellow who seems to feed on paranoia and for whom nothing is ever quite right. Caught against his will in the ever-tightening vise of the duel between the family and the cop who won't stop at nothing to jail them (Guy Pearce), J is forced to grow up in ways he never expected and ends up having to choose between right and wrong, when the only blood relatives he has in his life are on the wrong side - learning that his family, actually run with an iron hand by a grandmother who thinks nothing of disposing of other blood relatives, puts a whole new spin on the concept of "dysfunctional".

     Mr. Michôd, directing from a water-tight, perfectly formed script he nursed for years, can't help lay on the portents a bit too thickly, suggesting Animal Kingdom as a kind of Godfather-ly family tragedy by way of Michael Mann's sun-drenched urban noirs transported Down Under. The slow-motion plans, Antony Partos' score, the implacably deterministic structuring may come on a bit too strong - but that never diverts from the first-time helmer's sure grasp of story and excellent control of mood (Adam Arkapaw's cinematography is exemplary in that sense), and of his knack for modulating with uncanny ease a strong ensemble cast. And it's an ensemble in the truest sense of the word - everyone works off everybody else, and even the briefest of roles exists as fully-fledged, stand-alone characters. It's Mr. Frecheville (then a newcomer) who carries the bulk of the film's load, but he's excellently supported by everyone around him, from Mr. Mendelsohn's ghost-like unpredictability to Mr. Pearce's strong moral compass. Animal Kingdom may not tell a particularly new tale, but tells it with conviction, talent and a certainty that is seldom visible in a first-time film director. As for the influence of nature and nurture - the film doesn't really offer anything other than a tie, but you'll have to see it to find out why.

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville
Director and screenwriter: David Michôd
Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Antony Partos
Designer: Jo Ford
Costumes: Cappi Ireland
Editor: Luke Doolan
Producer: Liz Watts (Screen Australia and Porchlight Films in association with Film Victoria, Screen New South Wales, Fulcrum Media Finance and Showtime Australia)
Australia, 2009, 113 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, September 29th 2013


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