Starring: James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pierce
Directed by: David Michod (“Solo”)
Written by: David Michod (debut)

When Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) finds himself alone after the death of his mother, there’s nowhere to go except into the welcoming arms of his estranged family, a collection of shady criminals his mom always tried to keep him away from but can’t any longer.

In “Animal Kingdom,” the Sundance Film Festival winner for Best Film in the World Dramatic category this past January, J must learn to acclimate to his new surroundings and become part of his inherited tribe. The metaphorical title is obvious. If J wants to survive, he has to match the uncompromising lifestyle of his three miscreant uncles (Ben Mendelsohn, Luke Ford, and Sullivan Stapleton) and his grandmother (Jaci Weaver) who plays the disturbing matriarch of the family who will do anything for her boys.

But despite his difficult upbringing by a heroin-addicted mother, J doesn’t necessarily want to be a part of the illicit family business. The tight grip his uncle Pope (Mendelsohn) has on the family, however, is too much to bear at times. With J exposed to all the drug-related dealings happening under his roof, it’s almost impossible not to get reeled into the criminal activity whether he wants to or not.

There to help J possibly escape the confines of his home life is Leckie (Guy Pierce), a concerned Melbourne detective who sees there is a slight chance to save J from a life he never intended to be a part of. Knowing this really is his only way out of his circumstance, it’s fascinating to watch J function on fear while keeping as emotionally distant as he can from the family who is slowly suffocating him.

Directed and written by David Michod, “Animal Kingdom” is an unnerving thriller that paces itself like a minimalist film, but pulsates with a gritty darkness. The performances, especially from Weaver, who gives a new face to evil mothers, are skillfully mastered as is Michod’s searing screenplay that takes the term “dysfunctional family” to an entirely new level.

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