Evil in an out­back town

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - David Strat­ton

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

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