Forget the cheerful antics of Crocodile Dundee: Australia has provided fertile terrain for countless dark characters in the country’s cinema. In “Son of a Gun,” which opens this week, a teenage prisoner (Brenton Thwaits) winds up finding protection in prison from a criminal mastermind (Ewan McGregor). But they’re hardly the first lawbreakers to engage in nefarious antics on the Australian screen. Here’s a look at some of the best:
Equal parts crime thriller, neo-western and coming-of-age story, the Australian drama “Animal Kingdom” puts its moral compass into a tailspin. Initially, first time writer-director David Michod introduces a basic sense of right and wrong adopted by the most casual entries in good-versus-evil sagas, but he later endows his cruel world with a fittingly tilted vision of justice. Our sympathies lie with alienated teen Josh (James Frecheville), a Melbourne youth whose innocence gets challenged by his older gangster relatives. Michod situates Josh as the moral center, then sneaks in a finale suggesting nothing is sacred. Josh grows up when he grows bad.
A breakthrough performance for Eric Bana when he was a still a stand-up comedian, this rambunctious portrait of former thug Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read follows the character through decades of incarceration and street antics in which his brash, violent behavior constantly generates attention while he somehow avoids any serious punishment. The movie stages its bloodiest showdowns with a mixture of dark humor and peculiar dread: Stabbed by an old friend several times while in prison, Chopper strips down and watches the blood trickle down his chest in awe; later, he imagines a testimony against him in rhyming form. An ear-splicing scene gives “Reservoir Dogs” a run for its money, and several other moments find Chopper lasting out against those around him for the slightest challenges to his sense of security. The movie is more interesting in individual moments than as a sum of its parts, but as a first feature it contains remarkable polish. Dominik never glamorizes the character, but his restless style is routinely amazed by Chopper’s sheer bravado, a key mechanism in his constant ability to survive — and, eventually, become a best-selling author.
The title of Nash Edgerton’s “The Square” could easily refer to the neatly packaged category of film noir in which it exists. The Australian director’s first feature involves a pair of star-crossed suburban adulterers whose background scheming is doomed to fail, and from the opening minutes, the entire narrative experience revolves around watching them arrive at that point. The most obvious antecedent for this enticing combination of black comedy and suspense is the Coen brothers’ “Blood Simple,” but “The Square” has a more basic, classical charm that recalls moody 1940s-era noirs such as “Double Indemnity” and countless others. It has a smooth rhythm from start to finish, blending elegance with a macabre sensibility to create an enjoyably anachronistic vibe.
But at the same time, “The Square” has a naughty spirit that upgrades it to contemporary standards for the genre. Richard (David Roberts), the ill-fated forty-something anti-hero, seems virtually doomed from the outset: He cheats on his wife with neighbor Carla (Claire van der Boom) but squirms when his secret lover brings up the possibility of running away together. Carla’s own husband has arguably worse vices than the troubled romantic duo, as evidenced by the stolen money he keeps stashed away in the attic. But his sins eventually pale in comparison to Carla and Richard’s misguided schemes to complete their ride-into-the-sunset fantasy.
“The Snowtown Murders”
The 1999 serial murders that took place in a sleepy town in Southern Australian don’t just provide the inspiration for “The Snowtown Murders,” Justin Kurzel’s nightmarish directorial debut. The movie embodies the murdering process with undeniably frightening results. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Snowtown Murders” was merely called “Snowtown,” placing emphasis on the locale rather than the grisly events that took place there. The new title is more accurate; it conveys that the film displays a devotion to those acts and virtually nothing else. The filmmaker convincingly portrays the evolution of killer instinct nearly to the point where he almost fetishizes it.
The main arc involves abused teen outcast Jamie (Lucas Pittaway), whose bleak home life with his two brothers and their dispassionate mother (Louise Harris) hits an all-time low when her boyfriend takes nude photos of the boys. At least, that appears to be the all-time low until a friend starts to sexually abuse Jamie as well. Then comes a potential cure in the form of a new man his mother brings home, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall). The confident, seemingly upright citizen holds neighborhood meetings in the family’s kitchen to discuss plans for weeding out the local scum. But Bunting uses charm to mask his lunacy. Eventually, he brings Jamie into his real scheme, methodically killing off anyone he deems unworthy of their close-knit community. “The Snowtown Murders” then emphasizes Jamie’s path to joining in the mayhem. In that regard, it succeeds to a chilling degree. Kurzel’s screenplay credibly portrays Jamie’s transition from shy teen to murdering accomplice and finally killer himself with a disquieting sequence of ghastly moments.
Philip Noyce’s 1982 drama about the murder of Australian activist Juanita Nielsen, who vanished in 1975, though it fictionalizes the events in question. Judy Davis stars as real estate activist Kate Dean, who attempts to prevent an architect from completing a housing development with the power to destroy Sydney’s lower income communities. Noyce injects the story with a creepy sense of inevitability stemming from the ominous shadow of real life events. Notably, the movie still generates an uplifting quality with Kate’s fierce commitment to her ideals even as it maintains a grim source of tension surrounding the futility of her efforts. Noyce would later come to the United States and work on crime and espionage films for Hollywood such as “Clear and Present Danger” and “The Bone Collector,” but found his groove again by returning down under for “Rabbit-Proof Fence.” As the reception to that film proved, the director was at his best in his native territory, and “Heatwave” is one early example of why his career took off there.
Indiewire has partnered with DIRECTV to present the television premiere of the crime drama SON OF A GUN which is available exclusively on DIRECTV and in theaters 1/16. JR, a teenage criminal, is locked up for a minor crime and forced to adapt to the harsh realities of prison life. Brendan Lynch, one of Australia’s most notorious criminals, offers JR protection, but it comes with a price. Find out more and how to watch here.