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‘Animal Kingdom’ bleak, intense

The Associated Press

We know we’re in for a different kind of family values early in “Animal Kingdom” — right off the top, actually — as we watch a teenager sitting next to his passed-out mother on the couch while some inane game show blares on the television in the background.

It’s only when the paramedics arrive at their shabby apartment that we realize she’s dead from a heroin overdose, and yet the boy’s expression remains stoic throughout.

This development will force Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) into a life with the relatives he never really knew — relatives his mother tried to keep him away from because they were even more messed up than she was. Now, this 17-year-old must find his place among them, even though he’s clearly in over his head from the start.

Watching this small-time Melbourne crime family unravel under the weight of their overconfidence is riveting as Australian writer-director David Michod takes his time methodically detailing their self-destruction. The combination of steady pacing, intimate cinematography and startling performances will leave you feeling tense throughout “Animal Kingdom” and probably for a while afterward. It’s such a stripped-down, assured little thriller, you’d never know it was Michod’s feature debut.

Upon his mother’s death, J reaches out to his grandmother, a diminutive, doting blonde known as Smurf (Jacki Weaver), who lovingly takes him into the fold. This consists of her three grown sons and their close friend and fellow partner in crime. They’re into petty stuff and violent stuff — drugs, whatever they can get away with — and while the police are after them, they’re not much more scrupulous. The rules are there are no rules as Michod presents a seemingly sedate suburbia that’s actually percolating with bloody retribution.

The leader of the family is Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s in hiding at the film’s start but, once he shows up, he wastes no time re-establishing himself as the alpha dog. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is the speed freak and drug dealer — volatile and frequently shirtless to show off his array of tattoos. Darren (Luke Ford) is the passive youngest brother who does what he’s told when he’s not smoking pot. Pope’s best friend, Baz (Joel Edgerton), is the most levelheaded one among the crew; he also has the most normal life, with a wife and baby at home. He seems like such a good guy, he makes you wonder why he’s bothering with these crooks who are also unpredictably dangerous — and not quite as smart as they think they are.

As back-and-forth attacks with the police heat up, J inevitably gets sucked into the family’s criminal doings. His girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), also finds herself at risk. The one detective with enough brains and spine to try and stop the madness, played intelligently as always by Guy Pearce, can’t single-handedly end such pervasive corruption. And one of the most powerful forces he faces is Smurf herself — she will turn out to be not so nice after all, but when she’s bad, she’s better, and Weaver is truly frightening in the role.

Functioning as our guide to this harsh world, newcomer Frecheville may be a bit too reticent — it would be nice to have some increasing insight into whether these activities trouble him — but his low-key performance also makes his eventual emotional breakdown that much more powerful.

As is true throughout “Animal Kingdom,” it’s the naturalism that grabs you.

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