If your idea of the archetypal Australian family is The Sullivans or the Bishops of Ramsay Street, wait until you get a load of the Codys. This Melbourne criminal clan (based on a real family, apparently) is characterised by the nefarious activities of three brothers, one more disreputable than the next. There's Pope (Mendehlson), the eldest and most notorious; Craig (Stapleton), the middle and nerviest; and Darren (Ford), the youngest and weakest of the trio. Though it's the sons who perpetrate all of the violence and handle all the drug deals, this dysfunctional family is ruled over with a rod of iron by the indefatigable matriarch Smurf (Weaver), a Ma Barker type figure with a Machiavellian approach to life that would put Lucrezia Borgia to shame.

Into this animal kingdom of brute males and an alpha female comes grandson Josh (Frecheville), a brooding teen whose mother overdoses at the beginning of the film leaving him to be raised in the bosom of the Cody clan. The movie unfolds through Josh's eyes and, as the police net tightens, the youngster is left to face some stark decisions about his own and his family's future.

Though crime dramas are ten-a-penny and criminal families are no strangers to the screen, writer-director Michod (making a hugely impressive debut behind the camera) fashions a powerful, searing narrative that keeps the audience on its toes through smart plotting and unexpected explosions of violence. In this regard, he is well served by a raft of strong performers, notably Guy Pearce as the detective who believes Josh is the key to bringing down the family; Mendehlson as the coiled-up brother capable of doing anything at any given moment and, best of all, the Oscar-nominated Weaver as the mom with the bottle-blonde hair and black heart.

The Aussies have produced some cracking crime dramas over the years, including 'Romper Stomper' (1992), 'Chopper' (2000) and 'The Hard Word' (2002). 'Animal Kingdom' is the pick of the bunch.

Michael Doherty