Cin­ema verite

Film­mak­ers’ af­fair with the charis­matic psy­chopath

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

ON YouTube, you can find an in­ter­view with Aus­tralian di­rec­tor David Mi­chod, stand­ing out­side the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, Melbourne. It’s 2008, a cou­ple of years be­fore he made his de­but fea­ture, An­i­mal

King­dom. Mi­chod is at the open­ing night of the St Kilda Film Fes­ti­val and the state of Aus­tralian film is on his mind:

What would be nice is if a slew of re­ally good qual­ity Aus­tralian films came along, one af­ter the other, that re-in­spired Aus­tralian au­di­ences’ con­fi­dence in the prod­uct. Be­cause it is a sim­ple fact, you go to a mul­ti­plex and there’s a bunch of films to see, and the Aus­tralian one is start­ing be­hind the eight ball be­cause . . . there haven’t been many re­ally great ones for a while.

It’s a hoary old com­plaint, though one voiced more of­ten by Aus­tralian au­di­ences than Aus­tralian film­mak­ers. It’s also one that, in only a few years, has al­ready be­come out­dated. Mi­chod got his wish — the past two years have been among the strong­est for Aus­tralian cin­ema in decades.

Justin Kurzel’s Snow­town, Cate Short­land’s Lore

and Amiel Courtin-Wil­son’s Hail, in par­tic­u­lar, are all pow­er­ful, con­fi­dently made films.

The most strik­ing thing about th­ese films, as well as those that im­me­di­ately pre­ceded them — such as War­wick Thorn­ton’s Sam­son & Delilah,

Rachel Ward’s Beau­ti­ful Kate and Mi­chod’s An­i­mal King­dom — is that they’re all made by rel­a­tively new film­mak­ers. Lore is Short­land’s sec­ond film and Hail is Courtin-Wil­son’s first fea­ture af­ter a cou­ple of doc­u­men­taries. The rest are debu­tants. It may be a touch pre­ma­ture to her­ald the ar­rival of a new Aus­tralian wave, but we’re cer­tainly in the mid­dle of a rude burst of health.

Again and again in the past three decades, an Aus­tralian film­maker (An­drew Do­minik, for ex­am­ple, who di­rected Chop­per) has made a crit­i­cally lauded Aus­tralian film and used it to spring­board into the Amer­i­can in­dus­try, never to re­turn. It’s been a solid bet that, when we see their sopho­more fea­tures, they won’t have been filmed in Aus­tralia. In fact, the char­ac­ters in them prob­a­bly couldn’t lo­cate Aus­tralia on a map. But there are signs that all-too-fa­mil­iar tra­jec­tory is start­ing to be­come more fluid. The model mod­ern Aus­tralian film­maker now looks like Mi­chod, who di­rected an episode of the HBO show En­light­ened in LA, then re­turned to Aus­tralia to helm his sec­ond fea­ture, The Rover. Film­mak­ers such as Ward, Mi­chod and Short­land (and, in the case of Jane Cam­pion, whose minis­eries Top of the Lake pre­miered this year to strong no­tices, their pre­de­ces­sors as well) are not only able to work at home as well as abroad but are also echo­ing their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts in reg­u­larly bounc­ing back and forth be­tween film and tele­vi­sion.

If this is the be­gin­ning of a resur­gence, it’s one that looks very dif­fer­ent from the last. The co­hort of Aus­tralian film­mak­ers who launched their ca­reers in the 1970s was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing the Aus­tralian past, and land­scape, on screen. Ty­ros such as Peter Weir and Fred Schep­isi were mak­ing films such as Pic­nic at

Hang­ing Rock and The Chant of Jim­mie Black­smith, ge­n­e­sis sto­ries about the colo­nial veil be­ing wrenched off. By com­par­i­son, the new guard is mak­ing movies that are largely con­tem­po­rary and ur­ban. This is hardly sur­pris­ing when you con­sider the dom­i­nant genre in Aus­tralian movies is now the crime film. Snow­town, An­i­mal

King­dom and Hail are only the lat­est ex­am­ples of the kind of Aus­tralian film that per­haps be­gan with Ge­of­frey Wright’s Romper Stom­per, and con­tin­ued with Rowan Woods’s The Boys, Do­minik’s Chop­per, Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek and even John Hill­coat’s The Propo­si­tion — the

only pe­riod film in the bunch, though one that couldn’t be fur­ther away from the niceties of Gil­lian Arm­strong’s My Bril­liant Ca­reer. Th­ese films con­sti­tute a sub-genre within Aus­tralian film — a kind of cin­ema of the charis­matic psy­chopath. The re­cur­rence of this theme in the past 20 years of Aus­tralian movies is star­tling, though not to­tal. In the past five years alone, films as var­i­ous as The Black Bal­loon, Sam­son & Delilah, Beau­ti­ful Kate, Wish You Were Here, Lore,

The Hunter, Not Suit­able for Chil­dren and Griff the In­vis­i­ble have been re­leased, with nary a de­ranged killer in sight. None, though, is likely to cast the kind of shadow Romper Stom­per has since its re­lease in 1992.

One look at the films com­ing down the pike sug­gests our predilec­tion for gritty crime sto­ries seems to be in no dan­ger of abat­ing, ei­ther. The next 12 months will see the re­turn of Mick Tay­lor in Wolf Creek 2, as well as Mi­chod’s The Rover, a western set in the Aus­tralian desert in a rav­aged, un­spec­i­fied near-fu­ture. Its main char­ac­ter, played by Guy Pearce, has, ac­cord­ing to the film’s log­line, ‘‘ left ev­ery­one, ev­ery­thing and ev­ery sem­blance of hu­man kind­ness be­hind him’’. It cer­tainly sounds a lot like Mad Max, though if the re­cent trend in Aus­tralian crime films is any­thing to go by, there’ll be noth­ing camp about it.

COURTIN-WIL­SON’S Hail was in many ways the most un­usual Aus­tralian film re­leased last year. A pre­cis of the film’s plot would sell it short, but it opens with Daniel, played by real-life ex-con Daniel P. Jones, re­turn­ing from prison to his girl­friend Leanne. The film spends the next hour sit­ting with them in their liv­ing room be­fore much in the way of con­ven­tional plot or ac­tion oc­curs, but it’s grip­ping, partly be­cause one would swear blind it’s a doc­u­men­tary, not a fea­ture. The film fuses doc­u­men­tary tech­niques and non-ac­tors within an im­posed dra­matic struc­ture, one that for the most part is in­vis­i­ble. It con­tains star­tling and of­ten hal­lu­ci­na­tory im­ages. At one point, a horse falls from the sky, buf­feted by the wind and loop­ing around and around as the cam­era fol­lows its sad spi­ral to­wards the ground (the film­mak­ers got a dead horse from the knacker’s yard, took it up in a plane and threw it out). Hail is also unique in the pan­theon of mus­cu­lar, vi­o­lent Aus­tralian cin­ema in fea­tur­ing ro­man­tic love at its core. There’s a sex scene in its first 20 min­utes that is one of the most un­af­fected sex scenes ever com­mit­ted to film, any­where. In the end, though, Hail’s pro­tag­o­nist be­comes an­other in the long line of vi­o­lent aveng­ing an­gels on Aus­tralian screens, tor­tur­ing and mur­der­ing with aban­don. It’s a good in­di­ca­tion of the pull this kind of char­ac­ter ex­erts on Aus­tralian film­mak­ers, es­pe­cially when ev­ery­thing else in Hail is so wildly idio­syn­cratic.

Of course, homi­ci­dal psy­chosis in movies is noth­ing new, nor uniquely Aus­tralian. Con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can and Bri­tish film­mak­ers, though, don’t seem nearly as fas­ci­nated by the topic as ours do. Our crime films are usu­ally less flam­boy­ant than their Hol­ly­wood coun­ter­parts. Aus­tralia rarely pro­duces an equiv­a­lent to Guy Ritchie’s Snatch or Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, high-oc­tane romps set within crim­i­nal fan­tasias whose uber-vi­o­lence is so over­stated as to be palat­able. Broadly speak­ing, the Amer­i­cans are

fonder of vi­o­lent an­ti­heroes than out­right psy­chopaths on screen. There’s a de­gree of con­flict­ed­ness to, say, Clint East­wood in Un

for­given or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver that is ab­sent from their clos­est cousins in Aus­tralian movies. Hando, John Bunt­ing, Arthur Burns, Brett Sprague, Mick Tay­lor — self-doubt doesn’t en­ter into it. Even the more cheer­ful va­ri­ety of mur­derer in Aus­tralian movies, like Mark

‘‘ Chop­per’’ Read, is bliss­fully free of be­dev­illing in­ner demons. Char­ac­ters such as Ben Men­del­sohn’s Pope in

An­i­mal King­dom (the leader of his par­tic­u­lar pack, to go along with that film’s slightly too- schematic por­trait of crim­i­nal hi­er­ar­chies, who in­tim­i­dates his broth­ers and nephew into help­ing him ex­e­cute two cops) may be a long way from the ap­peal­ing lar­rikin­ism of a Ned Kelly, but it’s nat­u­ral to won­der whether the pop­u­lar­ity of th­ese char­ac­ters on our screens springs from a sim­i­lar im­pulse. This sus­pi­cion has been re­flected in the crit­i­cal re­cep­tion to many of th­ese films, most re­cently to Kurzel’s

Snow­town. His film es­says the crimes of John Bunt­ing from the point of view of Jamie Vlas­sakis, a teenager who would even­tu­ally be jailed as Bunt­ing’s ac­com­plice. In the film’s most vi­o­lent scene, Bunt­ing forces Jamie, the teenage son of his girl­friend, to as­sist him in mur­der­ing the boy’s brother. It’s shock­ing, graphic and pro­longed.

Writ­ing in The Monthly, Helen Garner’s reaction to this scene, un­der­stand­ably enough, was dis­gust: ‘‘ Who needs to see a close-up of fin­ger­nails be­ing torn out? Why would we watch a man with a face like a burst plum be­ing gar­roted against a wall on which a white tooth­brush del­i­cately hangs? Aren’t there things peo­ple are not sup­posed to see? Even Quentin Tarantino had the courtesy to pan away from the tor­ture scene in Reser­voir Dogs.’’ So vis­ceral was her reaction against the film that the en­tire medium falls un­der sus­pi­cion: ‘‘ What is art for? Is film art? Is it naive to be­lieve that an artist has re­spon­si­bil­i­ties? What li­censes a film­maker to shove us off the edge of the abyss, to walk away and leave us end­lessly fall­ing, with­out hope of re­demp­tion?’’

Th­ese com­plaints are typ­i­cal of those di­rected at this cat­e­gory of Aus­tralian movie. Specif­i­cally, crit­ics have felt un­easy at the lack of re­demp­tion or res­o­lu­tion on of­fer, and have grap­pled with the de­gree to which graphic vi­o­lence can or should be shown. But while some kind of flir­ta­tion with the idea of re­demp­tion may in­deed give the au­di­ence a de­gree of com­fort, there are few who would ar­gue that is a film­maker’s pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity. The gut­punch power of Snow­town is how deftly it forces the viewer to adopt the per­spec­tive of Jamie, and how con­vinc­ingly claus­tro­pho­bic that per­spec­tive is. Judg­ment, re­demp­tion, repa­ra­tion — all are wholly out­side the scope of Jamie’s ex­pe­ri­ence, and there­fore the film’s too.

Vi­o­lence on screen is not a triv­ial is­sue, but it’s a bit rich to com­pare, un­favourably, the vi­o­lence of Snow­town with the bloody may­hem of Reser­voir Dogs and find the lat­ter a model of re­straint. There are many films where vi­o­lence is in­deed mean­ing­less, where the col­lat­eral mur­der of hun­dreds is a barely no­ticed back­drop to the hero’s jour­ney, and Hol­ly­wood block­busters are the prime cul­prits. Look at Trans­form­ers, look at 2009’s Star Trek, where an en­tire planet was oblit­er­ated. Nei­ther gave the au­di­ence in­di­ges­tion, be­cause it’s ut­terly un­real, and we don’t see the blood. What dis­tin­guishes Aus­tralian crime films is the so­bri­ety with which they de­pict vi­o­lence; it comes out of nowhere and is gone in a flash, as in life, and is ap­pro­pri­ately dis­turb­ing. Snow­town, like The Propo­si­tion and The Boys be­fore it, is in­ter­ested in what comes be­fore vi­o­lence and what fol­lows it, not the thing it­self. For Tarantino, blood, and buck­ets of it, is truly the thing it­self. In Snow­town, we are shown only one mur­der, but the scene elic­its dis­gust be­cause it’s not a cartoon, it’s not stylish, it isn’t tit­il­lat­ing or cool. Kurzel is ut­terly faith­ful to Jamie’s point of view through­out Snow­town. And this sin­gle hor­rific, bru­tal­is­ing scene is fun­da­men­tal to that point of view.

Films such as Snow­town and Romper Stom­per don’t glam­or­ise vi­o­lent acts, but the char­ac­ters dol­ing out vi­o­lence in th­ese films are, un­de­ni­ably, al­most al­ways the most mag­netic. This be­comes even more com­pli­cated when th­ese char­ac­ters are real-life fig­ures, such as Bunt­ing, in­stead of fic­tional ones like Hando. The ac­cu­sa­tion that film­mak­ers glam­or­ise sadism by mak­ing the per­pe­tra­tors of it charis­matic is an un­der­stand­able one. And it would be naive to think that Wright didn’t know, or hope for, what he was get­ting when he cast Rus­sell Crowe. But the charisma of Crowe or Daniel Hen­shall is cen­tral to what Romper Stom­per and Snow­town (and The Boys, and The Propo­si­tion and so on) are at­tempt­ing to ex­am­ine. The power of th­ese films comes from what makes them sim­i­lar: the au­then­tic­ity of their de­pic­tions of ex­treme co­er­cion, the power of one per­son­al­ity to com­mis­sion oth­ers in the en­act­ing of their dark­est fan­tasies.

So many of our strong­est films, and es­pe­cially those made in the past two decades, con­form to this tem­plate. So much so that it’s tempt­ing to di­ag­nose a national ob­ses­sion, at least among our film­mak­ers. The line has al­ways been that Aus­tralia is a coun­try in­or­di­nately in­trigued by its pro­fes­sional trans­gres­sors — from the bushrangers to their mod­ern coun­ter­parts, like Mal­colm Naden. But th­ese films don’t mythol­o­gise. In­stead, they take a hack­saw to one of the cen­tral tenets of Aus­tralian iden­tity: the ro­mance of mate­ship. Paeans to male friend­ship have long pro­lif­er­ated in the movie world, from most westerns to The Shaw­shank Re­demp­tion to the present glut of bro­mance-come­dies. Aus­tralian film­mak­ers, mean­while, have col­luded un­der our noses in a col­lec­tive re­buke to all the buddy love ped­dled by our TV ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try in ev­ery com­mer­cial for beer or fast food. They’ve pro­duced one film af­ter an­other ex­plor­ing what the movies rou­tinely gloss over: that some male friend­ships, founded on an im­bal­ance in strength of per­son­al­ity, can be­come can­cer­ous.

John Jar­ratt in Wolf Creek

Kestie Mo­rassi in Wolf Creek, above; right, from top, Lu­cas Pittaway and Daniel Hen­shall in Snow­town; Eric Bana in Chop­per, left, and Daniel P. Jones in Hail; An­thony Hayes, David Wen­ham and John Pol­son in The Boys; Rus­sell Crowe in Romper Stom­per, left, and Ben Men­del­sohn and Jacki Weaver in An­i­mal

King­dom; di­rec­tor David Mi­chod

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