Evil in an outback town
Goldstone (M) National release from Thursday Maggie’s Plan (M) National release from Thursday
Aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) makes a welcome return to the screen in multitalented Ivan Sen’s outback thriller Goldstone, a sequel to Mystery Road (2013) that is, overall, more satisfying than the original. Sen, who not only writes and directs his films but also photographs them, edits them and composes the music scores, has, in these two films, combined the trappings of classical film noir with commentary on some of the ills affecting the most marginalised Australians. In other words, the bitter pill is encased within an entertaining package that uses the wide expanses of the most remote parts of this country as backdrop.
Since the gun battle that ended the earlier film, Swan is a changed man — and the apparent loss of family members, alluded to but not overly stressed — seems to be part of the reason. He’s undertaken an assignment to search for a Chinese woman who’s gone missing somewhere in the back of beyond, but when stopped by a local cop, Josh Waters (Alex Russell), as he drives erratically towards the tiny township that lends the film its name, he is so drunk he can hardly stand. It’s not a good start to the investigation and an unusual way to introduce the classic “stranger in town” whose arrival is bound to stir up a hornet’s nest (think of the 1954 film Bad Day at Black Rock as a good example of the genre).
The township of Goldstone survives only because of the adjacent mine, which is owned by Furnace Creek Metals Group. The place consists of a bar, a brothel called The Ranch, the Diggers Rest Motel, a police station, a few scattered houses, several dilapidated mobile homes, and the nearby headquarters of the Broken River Land Council, the indigenous organisation charged with approving any alterations to the activities of the mining company. The mine itself is fenced off with barbed wire, and heavily armed security men patrol the place.
As Swan, who has made a recovery after a night in the lockup, begins his investigation, Waters, who is new to the area, also begins to question the status quo. Johnny (David Wenham), the mine manager, is accustomed to offering bribes to overcome any opposition to his plans for development. He has corrupted Tommy ( Tom E. Lewis), the chairman of the Land Council, and he’s hand-in-glove with the local mayor, Maureen (Jacki Weaver in a variation on her Animal Kingdom character, baking apple tarts, offering cups of tea and plotting crimes at the same time).
It’s revealed that the mine is flying in Chinese women, taking their passports, and forcing them into prostitution at The Ranch; it’s one of these Chinese women whose disappearance Swan has come to investigate, and his presence predictably uncovers a cesspit of evil.
Mystery Road was marred by confusions in the narrative but by and large Sen has rectified that sort of problem in the new film. Apart from a little last-minute confusion, the storyline is pretty clear, if not always entirely credible. The filmmaker sometimes lacks subtlety, and writes dialogue that doesn’t always fit the characters who are called upon to speak it, but these are minor criticisms in a film that is overall very powerful.
The depiction of the Aboriginal community, where alcohol is supposedly banned but has been deliberately introduced to prevent opposition to the mine, is crucial to the film, and the extraordinary David Gulpilil gives a heartbreaking performance as one local man who refuses to buckle under.
Sen’s visualisation of this remote community is stunning, and his overhead shots that look down on the human characters as if they were tiny ants are remarkable. His music score, too, perfectly matches the drama unfolding on screen.
As in Mystery Road, the film builds, with con- siderable suspense, to a climactic gun battle that is extremely well staged — so the film delivers both as a thriller and as an expose. Pedersen and Russell, both very good as the two cops, head a distinguished and talented cast.
Maggie’s Plan is the fifth feature directed by Rebecca Miller, daughter of playwright Arthur Miller, but the first to have achieved significant distribution in this country. A wholly delightful portrait of a “modern” woman, the film is smart and often funny but is firmly based on reality, always the best formula for successful comedy.
It also has the divine Greta Gerwig playing the title character, and she has by now perfected the character of the 30-something woman whose lack of decision shapes her life. Maggie works as a career adviser to arts students at a New York college and, when the film begins, has made a decision — a plan — to deal with the ticking of her biological clock. Unable to sustain a relationship with a man for any great length of time, but determined to become a mother, Maggie’s plan, as she tells her married best friend Tony (Bill Hader), is to use a sperm donation from another old friend, Guy (Travis Fimmel), a former mathematician who now successfully produces and retails a variety of upmarket pickles. Guy offers to impregnate her in a more traditional way but she declines, preferring to use the proverbial turkey baster when the right moment in her cycle comes along.
To see Gerwig enact this scene is hilarious, especially when she’s interrupted in the middle of it by the arrival at her apartment of John (Ethan Hawke). She and John work at the same college — he’s an anthropology teacher and would-be novelist, and is married to a formidable Danish feminist, Georgette, played by Julianne Moore. Thrown out of his apartment by his wife, John arrives on Maggie’s doorstep proclaiming his love — and the inevitable happens. The next scene in the film takes place three years later, and I won’t describe the plot any further except to say that life for Maggie gets so complicated she’s forced to devise another, and rather more radical, plan.
Miller, who also wrote the dry, witty screenplay, is in Woody Allen territory here — the New York setting and the intellectual, upper middle-class characters and their romantic problems testify to that. She handles it all with style, and her sardonic view of problematic relationships carries the ring of truth.
The cast is flawless, although Moore’s Danish accent is not entirely convincing. Hawke as the charming but immature man who is the focus of the lives of these two very different women is excellent but, not surprisingly, it’s Gerwig who dominates the film with another incisive, funny portrait of a conflicted, vulnerable yet determined modern woman.
Aaron Pedersen and Jacki Weaver in Goldstone, left; Ethan Hawke and Greta Gerwig in Maggie’s Plan, below