film In-house Job

Shane Danielsen on Clay­ton Ja­cob­son’s ‘Broth­ers’ Nest’

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

I re­mem­ber peo­ple be­ing sur­prised that I liked Kenny. As if it were some­how be­neath me, some­how ir­rec­on­cil­able with the Go­dard- and Bergman-lov­ing poseur they clearly be­lieved me to be. It was ir­ri­tat­ing. What wasn’t to like? Sharp, funny and deftly put to­gether by direc­tor Clay­ton Ja­cob­son, the film also boasted a fine lead per­for­mance from his brother Shane, who strikes me as one of the more like­able and idio­syn­cratic Aus­tralian ac­tors work­ing right now. More­over, it was about work – that great, un­spo­ken sub­ject of mod­ern cin­ema. About the way our jobs not only plun­der our days but also serve to de­fine us as in­di­vid­u­als, fix­ing each of us within a caste sys­tem no less rigid for be­ing un­de­clared. With his over­alls and his plunger, and his vivid fa­mil­iar­ity with hu­man waste, Kenny was a kind of Un­touch­able, mov­ing un­no­ticed among Brah­min so­ci­ety – which might hire him, but would pre­fer not to have to shake his hand. Re­leased in 2006, the film proved a hit, and it was easy to see why. Aside from the poo jokes, Kenny was an archetype in which many Aus­tralians had al­most ceased to be­lieve: the prin­ci­pled, ca­pa­ble, fun­da­men­tally de­cent tradie. (The film also con­tained one of my favourite lines in our na­tional cin­ema, as Kenny sur­veyed a par­tic­u­larly toxic sep­tic tank: “There is a smell in here that will outlast re­li­gion.”) More than a decade later, there’s a sim­i­lar fo­cus on process in Clay­ton Ja­cob­son’s sec­ond fea­ture, the some­what awk­wardly ti­tled Broth­ers’ Nest (in gen­eral re­lease). Star­ring this time along­side his brother, and dis­pens­ing with the faux-doc­u­men­tary tech­nique of his de­but, he’s achieved some­thing no­to­ri­ously tricky: a crime story that’s funny and hor­ri­fy­ing in more or less equal mea­sure. But his ma­te­rial pre­oc­cu­pa­tions re­main ev­i­dent. Once again there are gloves and over­alls; once again there are se­quences of clean­ing, lo­gis­tics, work. Ap­pro­pri­ately, Terry (Shane Ja­cob­son) and Jeff (Clay­ton Ja­cob­son) are broth­ers. Their mother (Lynette Cur­ran) is un­der­go­ing chemo but has only a few months left to live. Their fa­ther com­mit­ted sui­cide years ear­lier, not long after learn­ing of his wife’s af­fair with Rodger (Kim Gyn­gell), an avid col­lec­tor of an­tique ra­dios and, in­so­far as Terry and Jeff are con­cerned, a charm­less tres­passer in their mother’s af­fec­tions. (Rodger aban­doned his own fam­ily to be with her, a com­pound­ing sin for which the broth­ers – and Jeff in par­tic­u­lar – have never for­given him.) Now the broth­ers stand to lose the fam­ily home, their mother hav­ing de­cided to leave it en­tirely to Rodger. “He’ll sell it from un­der us!” Jeff de­clares an­grily. “Be­fore she’s even in the ground.” Their so­lu­tion? To break into the house be­fore he re­turns home, mur­der him and make it look like a sui­cide by self-elec­tro­cu­tion in the bath­tub. Pro­vid­ing he com­plies, of course – if not, they’ll have to frog­march him to the barn and make him hang him­self … un­less he re­ally strug­gles – in which case they’ll mur­der him and make it look like the work of “ice junkies” sur­prised in the act of rob­bing the house. Yeah. It’s not a fool­proof plan. He’s achieved some­thing no­to­ri­ously tricky, a crime story that’s funny and hor­ri­fy­ing in more or less equal mea­sure. There’s a healthy dose of the Coen broth­ers to this ef­fort – specif­i­cally, their great 1984 de­but Blood Sim­ple. You see it in the mise en scène, that low-an­gled, rest­less cam­era prowl­ing the hall­ways of the house like an es­pe­cially hun­gry chee­tah. It’s there, too, in the steady es­ca­la­tion of stakes, the un­demon­stra­tive, un­re­lent­ing way that its com­edy shades darker and darker, un­til at last you re­alise, with about half an hour left to run, that you’re no longer watch­ing any kind of com­edy at all. All pre­tence at bon­homie has died; what’s left is a tense, tren­chant study of fra­ter­nal re­sent­ment and scrab­bling des­per­a­tion. (Or, as Terry puts it, “Fam­ily shit.”) Work­ing from a script by Jaime Browne, the film parcels out its dis­clo­sures grad­u­ally and well. Thus, as the broth­ers bicker and make amends, plot and re­con­sider, we dis­cover a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing, en­tirely plau­si­ble things: about the state of their re­spec­tive re­la­tion­ships, their fa­ther’s true na­ture, why their mother might be act­ing as she is. All serv­ing to muddy the pic­ture. For the most part it’s a two-han­der, a con­test of wills be­tween the sib­lings. The younger of the two, Terry is a lit­tle more hes­i­tant to take a life; when fi­nally he ac­qui­esces, it seems only be­cause he lacks any good rea­son not to do it. Jeff, mean­while, the more de­ter­mined of the pair, loses no op­por­tu­nity to bully his re­luc­tant part­ner – ask­ing Terry ques­tions to which he al­ready knows the an­swer and then be­rat­ing him when he gets it wrong. Part of the hu­mour, in the early stages, re­sides in Jeff’s zeal­ous over-prepa­ra­tion and Terry’s re­ac­tion to it, and Browne seems to be mak­ing a sly satir­i­cal point about the con­se­quences of our ev­ery­thing-on-de­mand in­for­ma­tion age, in which Wikipedia re­search and watch­ing tele­vi­sion ob­vi­ate the need for mo­ral con­sid­er­a­tion. Most of Jeff’s no­tions of crim­i­nal be­hav­iour seem to come from shows like CSI and NCIS. Mur­der, for him,

is noth­ing more than a “cold open”, a way of kick­start­ing the real story. In terms of cul­tural ar­chae­ol­ogy, Broth­ers’ Nest is re­mark­ably well ob­served. There are mo­ments here that will ring ab­so­lutely true to pretty much any­one with a mother, aunt or gran. (“Do you have a sin­gle mem­ory,” Jeff asks Terry, “of Mum ever open­ing or tak­ing any­thing out of that fuck­ing crys­tal cab­i­net?”) But there’s also some­thing af­fect­ing – and very Aus­tralian – about the way sad­ness in­trudes on every ex­change. The best scene in the film, to me, is a long con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the broth­ers in the lounge room of the fam­ily home, re­call­ing ear­lier times spent in it, mo­ments both aw­ful (Jeff’s mum slap­ping him at his fa­ther’s wake for tak­ing an ex­tra slice of cake) and tri­umphant (Terry scor­ing his first kiss from Chrissie Holt on the set­tee). We see them each sit for a mo­ment, lost in their sep­a­rate mem­o­ries. And then Jeff speaks again. “I fuck­ing hate this room,” he snaps. Of the two, Shane is per­haps the more nat­u­ral ac­tor; there’s oc­ca­sion­ally some­thing a lit­tle stiff about Clay­ton’s line-read­ings. But to­gether they present a fas­ci­nat­ing study in con­trasts. They’re both big men, but there’s some­thing fas­tid­i­ous and al­most del­i­cate about Jeff’s man­ner. It’s the tell of some­one who be­lieves him­self sev­eral de­grees more adept than he ac­tu­ally is. By con­trast, Shane, as Terry, is slouched, pon­der­ous – so cred­i­bly a sub­ur­ban every­man as to make even the schlub­bi­est Amer­i­can stars look like show ponies. Credit must also go to their cast­mates. With his un­tidy hair and sunken cheeks, Kim Gyn­gell has be­gun to re­sem­ble the late John Hurt, and be­tween his su­perb comic turn in Josh Law­son’s The Lit­tle Death (one of the most un­der­rated Aus­tralian films of this decade) and his rum­pled, needling per­for­mance in this one, he’s fi­nally be­ing given roles wor­thy of his con­sid­er­able tal­ent. Lynette Cur­ran, mean­while, has been an es­sen­tial part of many of my favourite Aus­tralian films, from Bliss (1985) and The Year My Voice Broke (1987) right through to Som­er­sault (2004). But her work here ranks among her very finest, tak­ing the bo­gan in­ten­sity of her per­for­mance in The Boys and find­ing within it yet un­tapped re­serves of scorn, vit­riol and con­tempt. It’s a brief, cor­ro­sive ap­pear­ance – al­most a cameo – but it burns through ev­ery­thing around it. I’m all for in­tro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion that lim­its film­mak­ers to two drone shots per fea­ture, and the fre­quent aerial cut­aways here feel es­pe­cially un­nec­es­sary. They fail to make it look more cine­matic, which is pre­sum­ably the point (Peter Falk’s shad­owy, rich-hued cine­matog­ra­phy is al­ready tak­ing care of that), and serve to di­lute the claus­tro­pho­bic in­ten­sity of what’s hap­pen­ing in­side the house. And after some sparse, ex­cel­lent scor­ing from com­poser Richard Plea­sance, there’s an orig­i­nal song about 20 min­utes be­fore the end that sticks out, tonally, like a pair of dog’s balls. What’s more, its lyrics ed­i­to­ri­alise so bla­tantly that they might as well be singing “He just killed him – did you see? Now he’s about to kill again.” (In case you think I’m ex­ag­ger­at­ing, it ac­tu­ally in­cludes the lyric “We made a choice, we crossed the line.”) Sim­i­larly, the song play­ing over the clos­ing cred­its – help­fully en­ti­tled “Prison Bound” – only just stops short of thank­ing the viewer for com­ing and wish­ing them a safe drive home. Not fault­less, then. But what it is, re­fresh­ingly, is smart – not only in terms of its plot­ting, the steady drip-feed of in­for­ma­tion and clar­i­fi­ca­tion, but also in the in­tel­li­gence it ex­tends to its char­ac­ters. There’s an an­noy­ing ten­dency for film­mak­ers to stack the deck against their am­a­teur crim­i­nals: to show char­ac­ters so im­be­cilic they barely seem ca­pa­ble of con­vert­ing oxy­gen to car­bon diox­ide. (Sam Raimi’s A Sim­ple Plan, in which every char­ac­ter elects at every junc­ture to do the stu­pid­est pos­si­ble thing, rep­re­sents a par­tic­u­larly egre­gious ex­am­ple of this.) Broth­ers’ Nest doesn’t do that. Terry and Jeff aren’t ge­niuses, by any means – but they’re not cretins ei­ther. What de­feats them, in the end, isn’t poor prepa­ra­tion, or even their own cu­pid­ity, but a sim­ple com­bi­na­tion of lousy luck and the sheer, un­pre­dictable messi­ness of ev­ery­day life – a theme that finds a neat vis­ual ana­logue in Robert Perkins’ clut­tered pro­duc­tion de­sign. Shit just hap­pens: a bliz­zard of de­tails – the for­got­ten birth­day, the ac­ri­mo­nious re­union. The star­tling dis­cov­ery, the im­pul­sive act. All the ca­sual cru­el­ties and mo­ments of grace, the score-set­tling and one-up­man­ship that make up an or­di­nary life. Or a fam­ily.

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