In “Animal Kingdom”, Josh “J” Cody (James Frecheville) has no other option but to live with his grandmother’s crime-wracked family after his mother’s death. While his relatives are not exactly the welcoming type, they accept him and treat him as one of their own. Simply living in the house makes J a witness to or even an accomplice in the crimes committed by all three of his uncles. And while all of this seems like a story of a good kid going bad, it’s much more complicated than that.

The main strength of this film is the complexity of J’s character. The story makes it too clear, even, which side is good and which is bad, which is black and which is white. However, we are not quite sure what J will choose. On one side there is the dysfunctional Cody family and on the other a police detective (Guy Pearce) who believes he can make J the good guy in this story. He always remains on the sidelines of the criminal acts, yet we are never sure if he is about to give in and join the other side. By the end of the movie the audience stands behind J, whichever path he chooses.

The other characters are as plausible as J, but the person who steals the show is the mother of the family. Janine Cody (Jackie Weaver) is perhaps the most evil mother-character in the history of cinema. At first she seems like a warm and affectionate mom, preparing meals for her children. She takes J into her household despite a long-lasting dispute with his mother. When the situation demands it, she adapts and gets what she wants. Unlike her sons, however, she does not resort to violence, but rather uses manipulation. While the mother might not be the brains of the criminal action, she is certainly the (rotten) core of the family.

This detailed construction of characters is one of the many things that does not make “Animal Kingdom” just another tale of gang violence. None of the opening scenes show the uncles committing a crime, and yet from the beginning we know that we are watching a disintegrating family. The Australian director, David Michod, makes us care about J and what choice he will make in the end. The use of close-ups gives a raw and bleak quality to the cinematography. The camera does not shy away from the violence, it does not spare the audience. Michod draws parallels between the world of gangs and the rules governing the animal kingdom — but he leaves us with a message: Being on top of the food chain is just an illusion.