The only way it could be more clear that ol’ Lu Fox (Garrett Hedlund) is a damaged man is if he hung a sign (bespoke, likely filthy) around his neck that announced “I AM A DAMAGED MAN.” Luckily for the props department, Gregor Jordan’s “Dirt Music” delivers the message with a touch more finesse, introducing the heartbroken fisherman through the eyes of the similarly ruined Georgie (Kelly Macdonald), who simply sees Lu as a kindred spirit. While Georgie is an outcast aching for a place in the world, Lu is a loner by choice and happenstance, though the reasons for their individual untouchable status spring from remarkably similar situations (and people). Inevitably, they fall in love.
Based on Tim Winton’s novel of the same name, the Jack Thorne-penned adaptation winnows down the lyrical love story into a gritty romance that only translates some of the source material’s poetic bent to the big screen. At least Macdonald and Hedlund are up to the task, transforming potentially one-dimensional lonely hearts into a pair of fated lovers who are just as compelling together as they are apart. (It’s a big year for writer Thorne, as he also wrote the hot air balloon drama “The Aeronauts.”)
Georgie, isolated in her fancy house on the Australian coast, first comes across the rangy Lu while taking a surreptitious midnight swim in the ocean just outside her well-appointed doors. Jordan and his team appear to have spent a hefty amount of time filming nighttime-set scenes during the day, and the technological wizardry required to darken the frames doesn’t always work, tipping between looking cheap and oddly fake. At least it means we can see Georgie in the darkness, and that’s exactly what Lu does: motoring by her in his ramshackle boat as she floats in the water alone. She looks dead, and Lu knows a thing or two about dead people. “I thought you were a body,” he drawls at her. “I am a body,” she shoots back.
That’s about all it takes to pull the pair toward each other — that, and Lu’s affectionate dog, a quick fan of Georgie, and yet another coincidence that puts the pair in each other’s path as Georgie alights to the city for temporary reprieve. That Hedlund and Macdonald have enough chemistry to smooth over even the oddest of contrivances in their quick-fire romance is essential to selling a story that moves from sexy to scary in less than one act. Both Georgie and Lu are running from Georgie’s boyfriend, local fishing legend Jim Buckridge (David Wenham, never quite committing to his character’s hazy motivations). She’s miserable in a relationship that has nearly erased her personhood, while Lu has a much bigger beef, and illegally fishes in Jim’s water as low-scale revenge.
While the internal politics of “Dirt Music” appear to hinge on how small communities function, Jim’s all-important influence on the community is stated far more often than its shown. Why is Georgie so hated? Why has Lu been abandoned during the worst time in his life? The answers all run to Jim, but it’s never clear why he’s such an outsize figure in their small town, big enough to inspire seemingly good people to do absolutely horrible things. The full extent of the coincidences that push Lu and Georgie to each other are obvious from the start, mostly functioning as a way to keep building up the pain to almost unbearable levels and then explaining away a strange third-act twist.
When the film is trying to do less — less twists, less coincidences, less trickery — it’s far better and miles more emotionally rewarding. Despite their fast sparks, “Dirt Music” is inevitably forced to separate its lovers, in a choice required by the unexpected plotting of Winton’s novel, which does the same far more quickly and with even worse consequences. This leaves Lu to his memories — which play out in real time, the pain of his past literally intruding on his present — and Georgie to pick up the pieces. The odd pacing of the story eventually gives way to an emotionally rich, elliptically unfolding timeline, with Lu and Georgie’s lives collapsing in on each other, even hundreds of miles apart.
A further meditation on the power of grief — with Lu’s memories unexpectedly powered by Georgie’s finicky optimism — helps push forward the film’s stellar third act. Despite the knotty plotting and lingering questions, Jordan unspools a satisfying conclusion that marries both emotions and an adventure-centric subplot that’s gorgeous and terrifying in equal measure. The melody of “Dirt Music,” once off-key, finally finds the right chords, nearly too late.
“Dirt Music” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.