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Americans may have created the perfect examples of the crime saga with The Godfather and The Sopranos, but Animal Kingdom proves that we don't have a lockdown on compelling gangsters. Even though it's about an unlikely family of armed robbers, Animal Kingdom turns into a strangely emotional and extremely dark story about family love and loyalties.
Not yet 18 and forced to live with his distant relatives when his mom dies of a heroin overdose, Joshua (stellar newcomer James Frecheville) has clearly seen a lot in his short life, and has learned the actions of teenage apathy and emotional distance simply to survive in a family perpetually wanted by the cops. Within days of moving in with his grandmother and uncles, a shocking tragedy prompts the homecoming of Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the most unstable of Joshua's three criminal uncles. While Pope and his brothers plan revenge against the cops, Joshua's position in the family becomes uncomfortable to the point that a crusading cop (Guy Pearce) starts convincing him to rat out his family in exchange for protection.
The Animal Kingdom weaves through betrayal and suspicion in a way familiar to Godfather fans, but instead of a polished, close-knit Italian family, Joshua's family is poor and often desperate, squabbling amongst themselves and taking advantage of anyone they can to get what they want. Other directors have shown the miserable side of gangster life before, but director David Michod does it here with astonishing clarity and affection for his characters. Even though many are close to being monsters, Michod powerfully builds his world of distrust and fear to the point that we understand them.
Animal Kingdom is a slow burn, and could probably have been a little tighter within its two-hour running time, but every time the pace starts to flag there's something breathtaking to make up for it. In competition in the World Cinema category, Animal Kingdom is a strong contender to win the whole section-- and if Sundance serves any purpose, a distributor will snap it up to give everyone a look inside Michod's tightly controlled, heartbreaking world.
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