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War of the Beasts in the Animal Kingdom

02/02/2011 12:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Animal Kingdom is the 2010 Australian film, written and directed by David Michôd, for which Jacki Weaver has been nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar as the mater familias of a clan of murderous psychopaths. The film is organized around a series of tête-à-têtes among the actors in which each tries to assert their control over the other. As detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) explains this behavior, it represents the striving of animals to reach the top of the dominance pyramid.

Weaver, as Smurf Cody, dictates the film's characterizations through her style of reaching out to each of her sons -- calming to the crazy one (Craig, played by Sullivan Stapleton), nurturing to the infantile one (Darren, played by Luke Ford), and ultimately challenging towards the evil one (Pope, played by Ben Mendelsohn as a truly frightening psychopath among psychopaths). These interactions create a map to all their psyches.

Thrust into this menagerie (including friend Baz Brown, the family man, played by Joel Edgerton), is 17-year-old J (James Frecheville) -- whose first family interaction, depicted in the opening scene, is with his comatose mother, sister to the boys, whom rescue workers are not able to resuscitate as J averts his eyes to watch a TV quiz show.

In one particularly grueling scene we see Pope try to force Darren to confess that he is gay -- the purpose of this information we can only imagine being the better to dominate his weak-link brother. Pope's empty-eyed way of dealing with others leaves us wondering if he is crazy -- Smurf encourages him to resume his medication -- or simply the most calculating of monsters.

The extremely depressing picture of life among humans in this picture is that no one can be trusted -- J's maturity is indicated simply by his ability to outsmart all the other animals. The best-intended character, detective Leckie, fails in his efforts to convince J to follow the straight and narrow by collaborating with the police, primarily because the police are as implicated in jungle behavior as the Cody boys.

On his way out after finally killing Pope alone in a room with him, J hugs Smurf. J previously showed no emotion when his own mother died. His motives for this show of affection remain unclear. To encourage her to take the rap for killing her son? Because she has just lost the third of her four children to predecease her? Because she's his grandmother?

J is not open with his emotions, which gives him his ultimate power. He ignores Pope's encouragement to bare himself at one point, and we must wonder in what degree he kills his uncle out of vengeance or due simply to his need to survive. We like to feel it is due to some of the human feeling he shows for his murdered girlfriend (in an interaction with whom he explains that he loves her because she's "nice"). Certainly, Pope will never know.

Some scenes are more obviously indicative than others -- as when Smurf -- herself embodying evil, albeit in the service of her family (unlike Pope, who kills for his own crazy reasons and who cares for no one), persuades a corrupt cop to attempt to assassinate J. But the true cinematic skill of the film is in the naturalness of many of these interactions -- as when almost-socialized friend Barry explains bathroom hygiene to J, leading to his only smile in the film.

In this cinematic virtuosity, Michôd embodies the psychological skill of no one so much as Hitchcock, albeit in an updated mode.