“10 minutes won’t change my life,” Colin (David Lyons) quips at a juncture during “Swerve,” and of course, those words are soon prophetic. The Aussie thriller written and directed by Craig Lahiff is set in a small outback town called Neverest (get it?) for a reason: over the next 86 minutes, there will be few moments of pause for any of the characters ensnared in this film noir-style tale, but unfortunately it eventually comes at the expense of an already stretched thin suspension of disbelief.
While the issues of the film are myriad, they are all connected by a certain gracelessness both in the script and in execution that mars the movie right from its overly complicated opening. Essentially, a double cross during a drug deal leaves one man dead, and another beheaded following a car accident with two other vehicles. In one car is the aforementioned Colin, who is quickly established as the film’s everyman. In the other, is the easy-on-the-eyes Jina (Emma Booth), who you won’t be surprised to learn is the femme fatale. Stumbling across a suitcase full of cash, Colin keeps that knowledge to himself, drops Jina off at home and then heads to the local police station in Neverest report the accident and turn over the money. Manning the desk is Neverest’s lead cop on a crew of few, Frank (Jason Clarke). He’s an abusive, quick tempered, sleazy sort who just happens to be married to Jina. Circumstances prevent Colin from leaving town so he’s forced to spend the evening at Frank and Jina’s. You can see where this is going.
And at least for a short while, “Swerve” is somewhat compelling, pitting three people of vague, sometimes intentionally obscured motives around a suitcase full of cash. It’s a classic setup, that should be a no brainer to deliver with tight, taut impact, but Lahiff soon loses focus on what kind of story he’s trying to tell. The cash eventually takes a backseat to a story about disposing a body and then in the final act, it becomes a straight up chase movie (and that’s not to mention an emotionless, Terminator-esque killer (Travis McMahon) who also has his eye on the cash jammed into the proceedings). There is probably an elegant way to navigate the shifting shape of the genre elements, but Lahiff struggles to find it, leaving “Swerve” to lurch clumsily, often with increasingly strained contrivances to force everyone to stay in the story.
But even when Lahiff does manage to build some decent tension, the distractingly inappropriate score by Paul Grabowsky undercuts it entirely. Jaunty and Tex-Mex flavored, its dated desert-style motifs seem more suited to a road trip comedy from the ’80s or ’90s starring Steve Martin or Chevy Chase. In fact, the score is so jarring out of place, it sounds like it belongs to an entirely different movie each time it appears. Completely and utterly mismatched with anything dramatically happening on the screen, Grabowsky’s work is totally out of sync.
However, good characters and writing can triumph over creative mistakes, but as “Swerve” continues to lumber on in a second half that continually seems to stretch to reach a feature-length running time, it becomes clear what one of the biggest problems of the movie is: Colin. His moral righteousness, particularly during the third act, is incongruous with rest of the movie which sets up a world of amorality. Even as events get nasty, Colin’s regular guy decency makes less and less sense, and also makes him uninteresting. The best noir tales find the characters morally compromised, but in “Swerve,” no one is forced to reckon with their choices with any real stakes: the characters are either already duplicitous or in the case of Colin, not. And when it becomes certain nothing will challenge those traits, the movie just becomes an exercise in plotting.
But even plotting needs performers and at least Clarke and Booth keep things mildly engaging. The former has fun biting into a part that in the second half especially gives him an arc with the sort stuff actors likely have lots of fun chewing on. Booth’s Jina wisely plays her role with the slow boil patience of a sultry snake ready to strike. And in scenes together, the two provide “Swerve” with its few moments of truly electricity. But for the most part, the most shocking thing about “Swerve” is how utterly straightforward it is. [D]