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By KJ Doughton | October 4, 2010

Envision sharing a jeep with Marlin Perkins from “Wild Kingdom.” You lift binoculars to eyes and track some doomed antelope being taken down by a hungry leopard. It’s a cruel spectacle, but there’s no looking away.

“Animal Kingdom” has nothing to do with Mutual of Omaha’s long-defunct television program, but it offers up the same type of hypnotic, terrible beauty. There’s a trio of lip-smacking jackals, and a naïve, trembling puppy. Rabid wolf packs dine on a sacrificial lamb. Reigning over all is a cunning lioness, seemingly benign but willing to eat her young for survival.

Forget any cutesy Circle of Life. Director David Michod makes it clear from the get-go that this ain’t “The Lion King.”

Darren, Craig, and Pope Cody (Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, and Ben Mendelsohn, respectively) are a fraternal trio of lowlifes from Down Under. Way down under. They snort. They deal. They rob. Towering above them is Smurf (Jacki Weaver), the family matriarch, who kisses her sons with just a bit too much tongue. Smurf’s bulging black eyes and exaggerated smile suggest a human troll doll. There’s something Machiavellian lurking beneath her slimy smooches and creepy grin.

“Animal Kingdom” starts out like low-rent Scorsese. We’re introduced to Josh (James Frecheville), a stone-faced 16-year old couch potato. There’s something frighteningly flat about his manner. When Mom OD’s on heroin and dies beside him on the family couch, Josh almost can’t be bothered to call an ambulance. He’s too caught up in a television show.

After this abrupt loss of any immediate family ties, Josh calls Grandma Smurf. He asks to move in with her. She agrees. Soon, the naïve adolescent comes to realize that granny’s creepy coven is more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than Leave It to Beaver.

The plot is deceptively simple. Crooked Aussie cops gun down a Cody crony, prompting the family to retaliate. Violence escalates, with young Josh stumbling through the wreckage.

On the periphery of this underworld war is a compassionate cop (Guy Pearce), who fears for Josh’s safety – and soul. “You’re weak,” he explains to Josh, asking for help in taking down the Cody empire. “That’s because you’re young, and protected by the strong.”

But will the strong always be there to watch Josh’s back? “You’ve gotta work out where you fit,” Pearce suggests.

Jacki Weaver owns “Animal Kingdom,” but Ben Mendelsohn, playing dead-eyed, psychopathic Pope, tries gamely to seize her spot atop the food chain. Pope is an expressionless shell of a man, all flat lined face and monotone speech. His strategy is to chip away at victims’ defenses. He beats them down, then offers to pick them back up. But don’t buy it. He’s like the fabled Scorpion who won the trust of the Frog before stinging the s**t out of it, and proclaiming, “It’s just in my nature.”

During its final reel, “Animal Kingdom” reeks of dread. Josh unwisely hooks up with new girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), putting her in harm’s way. The cops close in. Overcome with paranoia, Pope plots survival – by any means necessary. Then things get really nasty.

Cars become coffins. A garage door lifting open, make-up on a sink, and a youngster absorbed in a video game all suggest something sinister in the works. And lurking about the whole sordid affair is Grandma Cody, still grinning her formaldehyde grin.

Walking into “Animal Kingdom,” you might feel under-whelmed. The cinematography favors ugly, flypaper tones of yellow and brown. The acting is rough around the edges. There is nothing stylized. Nothing elegant. WTF? 

But give the movie some time to percolate. Filmmaker David Michod takes a big risk by betting that the film’s deliberate lack of showbiz glitz (or any big names, aside from Guy Pierce) will minimize distractions and force viewers to dive headfirst into the Cody’s disturbing, amoral universe. It’s a great call. “Animal Kingdom” sneaks up, snares you, and goes for the throat. You won’t shake it for days.

With “Animal Kingdom,” filmmaker Michod suggests that when the chips are down, human beings aren’t human at all. We’re not here to walk old ladies across the street for merit badges. We’re here to survive. Period.

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