Filmmakers’ affair with the charismatic psychopath
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 It’s also one that, in only a few years, has already become outdated.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