October 8, 2013
It’s a conversation that happens so regularly, it could well be illustrated by Bono clicking his fingers together.
The conversation starts like this: “What’s wrong with the Australian film industry?”
It continues thusly: “We don’t make enough genre films!”
And then concludes with all parties voicing theories and solutions that have absolutely no bearing on reality. The short answer is that it’s everybody’s fault and nobody’s fault, and besides it’s not like we’re one Die Hard franchise away from kickstarting our own Hollywood, so just quit dreaming, yeah?
Next week, however, we at least get to test the theory. You want an Australian genre film? Bam, you’ve got two.
The first is Patrick, the remake of the 1978 Ozploitation classic of the same name. Not familiar with Ozploitation? A few years ago, almost nobody was. It was a forgotten film movement in Australia, featuring titles such as Houseboat Horror and Turkey Shoot, that were overshadowed by the more prestigious “Australian New Wave”. It wasn’t until filmmaker Mark Hartley began making a documentary about it that people took notice, particularly as it included an enthusiastic endorsement from Quentin Tarantino.
It seems fitting that it should be Mark Hartley to be the one to make Patrick, a story about a young man in a coma, the connection he has to his new nurse, and the deadly goings-on at the creepy hospital in which he lies.
Patrick may lack the raw, handmade feel of its predecessor, but that’s no bad thing. Look for Robert Rodriguez’s forthcoming Machete Kills! as an example of just how tedious applying a fake ’70s filter can be.
The fact that Patrick’s action has been moved from the inner-city to a remote hospital teetering dramatically on the edge of a seaside cliff is the first sign that Hartley isn’t trying to replicate someone else’s vision. It’s homage without pastiche. Hartley knows that the hallmarks of Ozploitation belong firmly in the ’70s and ’80s, and removes its founding elements to make something that befits our time. It’s a decision that pays dividends.
Australian actress Sharni Viston makes for a compelling lead as the hospital’s newest nurse, and the one who immediately forges a connection with the comatose Patrick. Viston’s Kathy hits all the right notes: she’s in no way prepared for the horrors that unfurl, but you believe she is smart and capable enough to navigate them without having to suddenly turn superhuman. It’s the reason Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are such enduring heroines, and although Kathy may not be on their level, she’s got all the right moves.
Viston’s sudden emergence as horror movie icon is welcome, coming after her impressive turn in US indie horror You’re Next. (Speaking of which—spoiler alert—is it in her contract that every horror film she does must feature her pulling a large shard of glass out of a limb?) Rachel Griffiths is a more-than-satisfactory heir to Julia Blake’s brilliant Matron Cassidy, with Griffiths nailing the ice queen routine. Charles Dance, best known as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones, is a heady, ominous presence as the controlling Doctor Roget.
From Hartley’s works and interviews, you could infer that he has little time for the ponderous outback dramas that often characterise Australian filmmaking. It’s interesting, then, that the other genre film opening against Patrick is Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road.
Years before Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah rightfully took the world by storm, Sen’s debut feature, 2002’s Beneath Clouds, featured two Aboriginal teens, a boy and a girl, on the road together, developing a bond that was only vaguely hinted at. The film was extraordinary, and I’ve been keeping a keen eye on Sen’s movements ever since.
He’s been impossible to pigeonhole, making the beautiful and esoteric Area 51 drama Dreamlandin 2009, and the kid-gangster drama Toomelah in 2011.
With Mystery Road, he’s once again confounded expectations. Once again, the results are brilliant.
In the outback, an indigenous detective is examining the death of a young girl. As he investigates, he pulls at a string that unravels a sinister heart at work in his home town.
“Film noir” has never referred to the aesthetics of the genre. The “noir” refers to the subject matter, the exploration of humanity’s darker side. As if to highlight this, Sen has created a film noir that exists almost exclusively in broad daylight. There are almost no scenes set at night, and those few are generally character scenes far away from the crime that forms the backbone of the piece.
Aaron Pederson’s detective is a stoic man out of touch with his emotions, just like the greats of the genre. But just as Patrick refuses to be a constant call-back to his ancestor, Mystery Roadsteadfastly refuses to even nod to films like Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep. If Pederson’s character possesses any traits reminiscent of Bogart, they are traits that illustrate something unique to this story, and to the underlying story that, like the town’s corruption, refuses to draw attention to itself.
Mystery Road reinforces Sen’s position as one of our sharpest filmmakers, and I suspect many other directors will be wondering why they didn’t think to make this film first. It opens at dawn and closes at dusk, the perfect coda for a film about secrets bathed in sunlight.
Australian cinema once again proves itself to be a bus. You spend ages waiting for a great genre film, and two come at once.
The only question left is which order to watch them in.