Tuesday, August 9, 2011

MIFFdrawal session 1: Snowtown

Verdant farm paddocks fly by as a clanking rhythm track fades up. A young male voice recounts a dream the violence and strangeness of which make it feel genuine. Then it's off to an outer circle of what was once working class Australia but has now loosened down to life as the welfare belt. Folk here have nothing but the days and whatever they can to separate one from the next. In the kitchen of one dad, three boys are tucking in to some food around the table and the conversation is small talking but warm. Cut to the youngest boy taking directions to shift his position as he stands in another room. The camera pulls back to reveal he is only in his underwear. Same for the other two boys in turn, the last, eldest, having to remove all clothing. He turns, his face neither smiling nor traumatised, face numb as a dental patient's.

This is not the worst nor the end of it. It's life droning with atrocity of scale, appended but not relieved by church, the state distant and begrudging, socio-economically static. Into this, in a sudden introduction, comes John, a man who notices everything that is happening in a room and expert at evaluating relationships and personal power. We first see him in a vague approximation of a hero on a white horse (it's a motorbike and his white hat is a full face helmet but his retributive stare takes in our hero, Jamie (the last photo of the scene above). In the morning he is cooking everyone breakfast with a subtle but firm paternal joviality. By the end of it he's sussed them all, most of all Jamie.

The Snowtown murders are infamous and a wiki search will fill you in. The crimes shown here are in some cases compounded and there is no attempt to display the complete catalogue. This is not a film about murder but seduction. John Bunting is the centre of human gravity that everyone has known and followed at some point, whether a parent, teacher or any other figure who could make authority effortless by expert use of inclusion. The difference between him and those we have experienced benignly is that he has something on his mind that is not going to let go.

Daniel Henshall like the character he portrays is physically unremarkable, sufficiently overweight for it to be noticeable but not enough for him to be the Santa type, most of his face cloaked in dark beard, but his gaze works like the hands of a sculptor. Henshall is a terrifying screen presence and never more than when appearing to be reasonable and patient with anyone around him at the hate sessions he makes of every dinner, lunch or breakfast he's part of (there is a lot of eating in this film ... maybe that was the catering).

Demagogues don't speak of hate, they let others do that, they speak of love and family and they are never more successful as when one of their targets regards them with a smile that has come home. Such is on the face of Lucas Pittaway as he watches John ride his motorised stallion around the paddock. And that's only the start. From that point John takes and keeps Jamie, bringing the boy to the edge of life and then back from it, a changed and stronger life operative. This is a cinematic seduction which, unlike most, has not forgotten to include warmth. Yes, warmth. Most screen seductions go straight to the heat if they're sexual or rush to the afterchill if they're political. This is a seduction holus bolus, an absorption by one person of another, and is done with all the care of someone ensuring the quality and cleanliness of the igredients of the meal they are preparing for themselves.

There is no three act structure of any substance to this as much as the observation of this absorption. More  formal structure would hamper this piece. This is greatly helped by a music score that, praise be to Melodia the Wise, is in perfect harmony with the film, providing a fullness to the package. There's a range of approaches but most of it is based on thick drones, garnished here and there with what to my mind (and experience) sound like distressed field recordings. There are also moments of perfectly tonal guitar based music, as well, but the main brief of the film, its gravity and weight is given solid foundation in the drone. While not directly reminiscent of the sounds, the effect of it reminded me of the beautiful and often frightening  soundscapes Michael Gira and Jarboe assembled for the final Swans albums. Without an orchestral section in earshot, Snowtown's musical bed appears to have been made by itself. A look at the credits reveals the same surname shared by director and composer. If that's nepotism at its finest let's have more of it.

While I'll only mention one further cast member I'll just point out here that Justin Kerzel's direction of his cast reveals him to be what a lot of Australian directors are sadly not: good with his people. The remaining cast member to laud here is Louise Harris as Jamie's mother. Old beyond her years, careworn, she descends to a slow self-damnation with a sadness and anger that needs no spoken soliloquy. A thankless performance but a beauty.

This is the first of the however many I can fit in of post MIFF films that I'll be seeing in my last week of hols before I go back to work. I'm so glad it was still on a screen. I saw it at the Nova early afternoon in an otherwise empty cinema. Having variously missed and passed up several opportunities while it was a fresher release I savoured it minute by minute. Why? Because it's bloody good.

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