The title leaves no doubt about the nature contained in this Australian crime picture: the law of the jungle prevails, and it's kill or be killed out there. That's the belief within the Cody clan, anyway, the Melbourne criminal family whose exploits give Animal Kingdom its fire. The central character is something of a deliberate vacancy, a blank slate for the movie to write on: 17-year-old Joshua, known as J (James Frechville), is taken in by his grandmother after his mother dies of an overdose (a memorably chilling opening scene). Grandma (Jacki Weaver) is known as Smurf, but don't let the name fool you: she's the Ma Barker-like matriarch of a brood of sociopaths, none more lethal than oldest son Andrew, known as the Pope (a blood-curdling performance by Ben Mendelsohn). Luke Ford and Sullivan Stapleton play her other sons, and Joel Edgerton (The Square) is on hand as an outlaw associate. The way J is brought in and tested in this world of blood-spattered machismo is director David Michod's subject, and even if the film has a few heavy-handed moments along the way, the overall effect is tense and unsettling. J's journey comes up short compared to a contemporaneous study of another unformed youth learning the ropes of crime (Jacques Audiard's A Prophet), but its portrait of amorality thriving in a somewhat ordinary-looking urban landscape is effective. Bonus: Guy Pearce's role as a detective who tries to catch J on the course of his tragic trajectory, a rare glimpse of humanity in an otherwise chaotic zoo. --Robert Horton
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