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Movies: Animal Kingdom ****

Though it arguably misses a trick late on, David Michod's Animal Kingdom is so assured in terms of its themes and tone that it's hard to believe it's his first feature film. Loosely based on real events, it tells the story of a vicious Melbourne criminal clan from the point of view of a reluctant inductee.

As Animal Kingdom opens, teenager Joshua 'J' Cody (James Frecheville) sits in an armchair watching television with his mother, who seems to be asleep. She's not dozing, but dead from a drug overdose, and after the emergency services have taken her away, J is comforted by his grandmother.

Janine 'Smurf' Cody (Jacki Weaver) is a glamorous bleach-blonde matriarch who had been estranged from J's mother for years after a row over a card game. She's also the doting mother of three insanely violent bank-robbing brothers.

Led by the mad-eyed, drug-addicted Pope Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), the Codys have been waging a war in Melbourne's backstreets against the corrupt police robbery squad.

Heavily armed and deeply paranoid, the Codys are like a kind of coked-up Kelly gang, and while she seems doting and caring, Smurf Cody is surely the reason they're the way they are. She coos over her boys and gives them lingering kisses on the mouth, and has an enduring and not entirely rational hatred of the police.

She particularly despises police sergeant Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), a relentless pursuer of the Cody clan who does not even have the good sense to be corrupt. Leckie sees that J will inevitably be drawn into the family's criminal web, and realises he might just be the weak link that brings the brothers down.

Though it is not without its moments of explosive action, Animal Kingdom mainly trades on the ever-present possibility of violence. The brothers Cody inhabit a paranoid and totally dysfunctional world, and their constant expectation of violence is ultimately self-fulfilling.

Mendelsohn, who was so compelling in Rachel Ward's Beautiful Kate, is perhaps even more convincing as Pope Cody, a man whose sense of right and wrong is so addled that he's offended by J's innocence.

Weaver is tremendous as Smurf Cody, whose monstrousness is only gradually revealed, and newcomer Frecheville is very good as J, an innocent of sorts with a powerful instinct for survival.

I might have liked to see a bit of a crucial trial that we only get to hear about, but there's no arguing with the power of Animal Kingdom's ending, or with its excellence overall.

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