Ben Mendelsohn despite not being Oscar nominated for this role has apparently still broken through from now being one of the go to guys for a sleazy low life. Like Christoph Waltz who happened to have a similar break through that resulted in being cast in a few lesser variations (I refer to Three Musketeers and The Green Hornet), the original performance tends to be the best. As Pope Cody he portrays one of the Cody brothers who is an armed robber with his partner Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), but as the film opens currently is hiding out from a group of police who kill first and never bother to ask questions.
Mendelsohn actually creates sympathy for Pope early on in his portrayal as he just shows him to be a man who finds himself caught in a corner. Although Mendelsohn properly hints that Pope is definitely not just a normal guy he does well in being rather humane in his performance in these early scenes to allow us to see honestly why J would not be instantly sworn off by them. Mendelsohn has a few good moments where he establishes that Pope is somewhat distance thanks to his current problems with the police but as well there is a certain camaraderie that properly suggests the history of the family as well.
There is one particularly excellent moment for Mendelsohn when his friend his suddenly killed by the police and Pope is near enough to see it. Mendelsohn is terrific in showing a very human reaction filled with both fear that it very well could have been him but also a sadness over seeing his friend killed in such a way. It is a great subtle scene for Mendelsohn and particularly effective in showing the man before we meet the monster. Mendelsohn honestly allows you to feel sorry for Pope in the succeeding scenes as he makes the grief Pope feel understandable to at least a certain extent, and the eventual determination for revenge almost seem not as horrible as it is.
Jackie Weaver as the mother to the uncles and grandmother to J received high praise for her work which seemed like the a likable enough mother type but turned out to be pure evil. Mendelsohn has a similar arc although less extreme as it is no secret that Pope is a criminal to begin with. He does in a way though make Pope initial actions of revenge, even if that includes just murdering to random police officers who did not have anything necessarily to do with his friends death, somewhat reasonable through his passionate and authentic portrayal of Pope's feelings up to the point, and he allows us to believe that he could rope J in on the crime even.
After Pope succeeds in his revenge and the cops press the whole family about what happened we see the true terror in Pope. Where you could sympathize with the unease of Pope in his early scenes Mendelsohn becomes quite frightening as he shows Pope become like a violent animal in the corner. Mendelsohn has a great unpredictability in his performance not allowing us to know exactly what he is going to do, but one thing is sure that the uneasiness in the man should not be taken lightly. Mendelsohn is terrific in revealing the true nature of the man as he portrays a violent intensity that slowly builds as Pope begins to constantly question whether J can really be trusted.
Mendelsohn builds well to the moment in which Pope finally does murder someone he thinks will implicate him in the murders. Mendelsohn is absolutely chilling in the scene by how quickly and by the matter of fact fashion he handles the scene. He begins in such a gentle welcoming fashion, even when he is offering heroine to the person, than the way he than just proceeds to murder the person without hesitation is terrifying. It is an effective scene perfectly handled by Mendelsohn which portrays the animal in the man. It made all the more fearsome by Mendelsohn since once every gets cleared up, he shows that Pope is able to act like nothing happened.
This is a terrific performance by Ben Mendelsohn that honestly makes the film work as he almost steals the place lead, because the actual lead could not steal a free sample let alone a scene. James Frecheville should have conveyed how J was emotionally pulled in than out of the family's sway, but he does not. The film still works though because Mendelsohn through his performance as Pope which starts out as sympathetic and slowly reveals to be only horrific actually makes J's journey believable without the actor playing J to even portray it. Mendelsohn through his compelling portrayal of Pope manages to overcome the major flaw of the film which is really something to say the least.