Charles Darwin would easily recognize the struggle for survival in David Michod's gritty, gripping Animal Kingdom. And he would be quick to point out that, while strength rules, intelligence survives -- and that's the beginning of evolution.
In subject matter (and even, a little, in its hard-charging style), Animal Kingdom brings to mind James Foley's At Close Range, the unnerving 1986 struggle between good and evil that pitted Sean Penn against Christopher Walken as son against father.
Joshua 'J' Cody (James Frecheville) doesn't have a dashing criminal father to look up to -- but he does have an armed-robbery crew of uncles, from whom his mother has kept him separated. But when Mom drops dead of a drug overdose, J winds up in the custody of his grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), a high-gloss harridan who never has to raise her voice or crease her smile to convey the utmost malevolence.
Granny turns J over to the care of his wayward uncles and they baptize him in the ways of liquor, women and, eventually, crime. But J has picked a poor time to join the family gang: The cops have given up trying to prove that the notorious Cody brothers have committed crimes. Instead, they've started ambushing and killing them, then passing it off as self-defense.
Paranoia grips the whole family, because the craziest of the brothers, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is convinced that someone within has turned snitch. The combination of fear and drugs turns all of the Codys into snapping, snappish predators trying hard to remember that these are family.
Young J seems like a blank slate at the start, closed off to the world, no doubt having seen too much of his mother's behavior before she gave herself that last shot. At first, the Robin Hood aspect of his uncles excites him -- fun-loving criminals on the run from the mean old cops - until he winds up being interrogated by a smart detective (Guy Pierce), who uses J to drive a true wedge into the family.
Michod has a facility for building moments of explosive tension, when it's unclear to the characters who knows how much about what. But Michod's not afraid of brutal action, particularly the ambushes that cops and crooks alike set for each other.
These are fierce, almost feral characters, with just a varnish of civilization - whether it's Frecheville as the quiet, determined J, Mendelsohn as the snakey Pope or Weaver as dear old homicidal Granny. They make Animal Kingdom a tough crime treat from Australia.
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