The Dry

Aaron and local cop Greg investigate


A very familiar whodunit with an unfamiliar setting, The Dry sees Eric Bana on home Australian turf as a cop investigating the case of a man who killed his wife and kid before turning the gun on himself.

How familiar? How about: cop returns to old stomping ground, drawn back by a case which also re-awakens some slumbering trauma from years before. Yes, that one. Ringing the changes is the parched, dust-dry Outback where years-long drought is squeezing the life out of Kiawarra, a one-horse town dominated by farming, as well as the sweat-stain masculinity that’s an Aussie specialty. Drinking, brawling, swearing and scowling, plenty of all those too.

Specifically, Eric Bana plays the city cop returning to the town where half the inhabitants still think he was responsible for the death of a pretty teenage girl decades before. He’s there for the funeral of an old friend, Luke, the one who’s just committed murder/suicide. After being asked by Luke’s decent parents to have another look at what’s been declared an open and shut case, Aaron (Bana) gets to work, to the sound of ghosts rattling in closets, chickens coming home to roost and angry vigilantes warming up their welcomes, convinced the guitly guy is already under lock and key.

It will come as no surprise to learn that beneath the surface of the outwardly conformist farming community lurk some very dark secrets, because that’s what this genre doles out week in/week out in rafts of TV whodunit shows featuring unconventional detectives. Bana, thankfully, keeps in reserve most of the elements of the troubled-cop identikit and plays Aaron as a quiet and serious man, as per Jane Harper’s original book. Flashbacks to Aaron’s youth – larking about with pretty, soon-to-be-dead Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt), and friends Gretchen (Claude Scott-Mitchell) and Luke (Sam Corlett) – reveal that he was ever thus, though time has dessicated his personality even more, in the same way it’s sucked all the moisture out of the ground and up into the atmosphere in the intervening years.

Genevieve O'Reilly as Gretchen
Old flame Gretchen



Bana is an actor of great range, originally a stand-up comedian (it now seems amazing but there it is) who broke through seriously in the gangster flick Chopper in 2000 (still one of the scariest, lairiest performances you’re ever likely to see) before going on, in films like Hulk, Troy and Munich, to swim in some very big ponds. Who knows why he’s backed away from the A-list circuit working with the likes of Brad Pitt and Steven Spielberg but he has. He remains fearsomely busy and a great actor and this film really benefits from his coiled-spring presence.

The cast are all good, though, and it’s a great showreel for Australian character actors – Keir O’Donnell as the local cop Aaron teams up with, Genevieve O’Reilly as the grown-up Gretchen, Matt Nable as the seriously angry prime suspect Grant, to name but three – and help bolster what is this film’s real USP, its sense of place. Kiawarra feels real, its residents feel like they belong there.

DP Stefan Duscio shoots clean and bright, so we can see the soil dust hanging in the air; Peter Raeburn’s soundtrack smoulders and simmers, like a bushfire could take hold at any moment. The craft skills are strong.

There have been other Outback whodunits, and Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road and Goldstone share the sense of outright hostility and chippy masculinity that’s on display here, though drought as a setting (and possibly as a metaphor? discuss) has rarely been co-opted so well into the whodunit genre.

Fans of the genre will lap it up, though its sheer familiarity is a real handicap and one of the plot reveals is so lame it should be on a charge sheet. If you’re after bogglement, good though the players and creators are, you’re better looking elsewhere.






The Dry – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Troy

Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

24 April

 

The fall of Troy, 1184BC

On this day in 1184BC, the city of Troy fell after the most famous battle of antiquity. The Trojan War had started after a Trojan, Paris, absconded with Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Helen was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in history and her love had been gifted to Paris by the goddess Aphrodite, as a reward for choosing her (Aphrodite) as the fairest of all the female gods – the so-called Judgement of Paris. Aphrodite had not mentioned to Paris that Helen was already married. Paris, it had been prophesied, would bring about the destruction of Troy. And so it came to pass that the Spartans set sail for Troy in Anatolia (present-day Turkey), where they laid siege to the city for ten years, during which time Paris was killed, as was his friend Hector. The war came to an end after the Greeks (aka Spartans) infiltrated the Trojan stronghold using a gigantic horse to gain entry, the being horse full of troops who sprang out under cover of the night, after the horse had been dragged inside. Who does that? Drags a gigantic horse into their besieged city after a war lasting ten years? However, legend says that that’s just what the Trojans did. This act of utter stupidity has given us the phrase “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and also the techie notion of a trojan as a nasty thing hiding inside something seemingly harmless.

 

 

 

Troy (2004, dir: Wolfgang Petersen)

Troy gets a bad rap because it is a war movie that ends far from heroically. It ends with defeat, in fact. The fact that it was made by a German, Wolfgang Petersen, who had already made Das Boot, another war film in which defeat was a vital part of the offer, is what makes it an interesting film though, heroics being the prelude not to greatness, but to calamity. Petersen was born in 1941 in the German port town of Emden, which was almost totally obliterated in one night of bombing when he was three. But never mind the amateur shrink’s attempt to wed Troy to childhood trauma. Instead let’s look at the film, which pretty much removes the gods from the equation; this is human cock-up not divine conspiracy. On the Trojan side we have Orlando Bloom as Paris, and Eric Bana as Paris’s brother Hector. For the Greeks it’s a superbuff Brad Pitt (six months of training, apparently) as Achilles and Garrett Hedlund as his number two, Patroclus. Ultimately, though, the film is built around the Pitt v Bana showdown, before it goes on to divulge that the actual decisive event in the war was the construction, delivery and implementation of the Trojan horse. It was a Greek horse, of course, but this is not the place to argue. Instead let’s turn to the film’s weaknesses – the CG is just terrible, Orlando Bloom is completely unconvincing as Paris (the idea that he might have sat in judgement on goddesses is laughable) and Diane Kruger is no better as Helen, pretty though she is. There is no suggestion of what must have been a colossal passion to have caused a conflict so bloody and so long. On the other side of the scales the aged thespians show the young ones how it’s done, with Peter O’Toole in particular, and too briefly, seizing the screen as Priam of Troy, though Brian Cox and Brendan Gleeson acquit themselves well too. The fact that they’re all seasoned stage hands and are used to commanding a space tells us everything we need to know about what’s wrong with this film – Troy is an epic done with all the sound and fury ripped out. That is Petersen’s intention. And as the Greeks escape from the horse as the film enters its mournful last few minutes, and lay waste to everyone inside the fortified city of Troy, there is no gloating, no bugles, no glory. Unsurprisingly, this disappointed a lot of people.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Epic film, human frailty
  • A great cast
  • A beautifully dressed movie
  • A beautifully dressed (and undressed) cast

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Troy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Chopper

Eric Bana as Chopper Read in Chopper

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

17 November

 

 

Chopper Read born, 1954

On this day in 1954, Mark Brandon Read was born, in Melbourne, Australia. The son of an army father and a Seventh-day Adventist mother, he spent the first five years of his life in children’s homes before returning home, where he was often beaten by his father. A street fighter already as a teenager, he began his criminal career by robbing drug dealers, then went on to kidnap and torture members of the criminal underworld, in order to extort money out of them. He gained a reputation for brutality – bolt-cutting (hence the “Chopper” nickname) and blowtorching his way to notoriety. Between the age of 20 and 38 he spent almost all of his life in prison, serving terms for armed robbery, assault, arson, kidnapping and other less serious crimes. While in prison Chopper had his ears chopped off by a fellow inmate, at Chopper’s instigation. The reason why remains unclear. Chopper was stabbed by his own gang while in prison, for reasons which also remain unclear. “Look, honestly, I haven’t killed that many people,” Chopper told the New York Times in April 2013. “Probably about four or seven, depending on how you look at it.” Though the number is probably closer to 20, it’s Read’s disarming mix of honesty and bravado – “depending on how you look at it” – that made him a celebrity, beginning with his 1991 book, Chopper: From the Inside, a collection of anecdotes on prison life based on letters he’d written from jail. Building on the success of the book, Read went on to become an author of fiction and a media celebrity. Read died in October 2013, aged 58. Having contracted hepatitis C in prison, he needed a liver transplant but refused all efforts to provide him with one, insisting that there were more deserving cases than his. His stance remained unchanged when he discovered he had liver cancer in 2012.

 

 

Chopper (2000, dir: Andrew Dominik)

“I’m just a normal bloke, a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture,” cackles Chopper Read as we meet him in this largely prison-based biopic of Australia’s most charming cold-blooded killer. For non-Australians, the movie Chopper delivered first glimpses of two new talents – writer/director Andrew Dominik and star Eric Bana. For all the talents of both, neither has been as starkly effective since. Based on Read’s own books, Dominik and Bana present us with a view of Australian culture that’s familiar, but steroidally stoked. The blokes are all ocker, the Sheilas are all randy and the criminals are lairy to the point of psychopathy. It’s a world of overwhelming menace, with Bana frighteningly capable of portraying Chopper Read as the guy who stands at the top of the heap, a weapon in each hand. As opposed to the loquacious gangsters of Tarantino in the US, or Guy Ritchie’s Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweeps in the UK, this Australian vision of criminality is not glamorous – it’s dirty, sweaty, ugly, though filtered through the self-aggrandising persona of a man who is a lot more self-aware than he lets on. It has its funny moments, in other words. Bana was, amazingly, known as a comedian before he took the role but there’s no trace of a comedian’s tendency to court approval in his portrayal of a psychopath with the energy of a furnace. Unlike other films about criminals, Chopper does not try to explain, or forgive, but it does have a stab (if that’s the right word) at mapping the territory, internal and external, that provided the landscape for Chopper Read’s brutal life. It has the hallmarks of the early noughties film, the zip-edits, dense filtration and cross-processing, and Dominik pulls the same trick – piling on the gruesome – about twice too often, but in Bana we have one of the most menacing performances you will ever see on screen. Don’t let him catch you eyeballing him.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Eric Bana’s breakthrough
  • It was Chopper Read who suggested Bana for the role
  • The ear-chopping scene – nice
  • Take-no-prisoners hard-as-nails movie-making

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Chopper – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Deadfall

Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde in Deadfall

 

 

Remember Eric Bana in Chopper, frightening everyone to death as Australia’s most gruesomely violent criminal, Mark “Chopper” Read? There are echoes of Bana the Bad in Deadfall, in which he plays one half of a psycho sibling pair who are heading, unwittingly as far as they and everyone else concerned can tell, for a showdown rendezvous at a Thanksgiving dinner.

Deadfall isn’t half as good as Chopper, though it does give Bana a chance to show us he can still do ugly. If only writer Zach Dean and director Stefan Ruzowitzky had worked out some way of telling the other four stories they’re trying to tell with economy, leaving Bana with more screen time to frighten us.

I’m being unkind. One benefit of the various other plotlines is that we get to see Olivia Wilde playing the sort of cocktease you suspect features in many men’s daydreams. That she’s also meant to be as mad as her brother (Bana), the two of them being on the run from some heist or other, is never entirely believable. But Wilde is hot and maybe that’s enough.

In another plotline, we have Jay (Charlie Hunnam), a nice young boxer just out of prison who, accidentally you understand, does something very violent to the boxing promoter who owes him cash and is forced into hitting the highway to avoid arrest.

In another plotline we have Jay’s parent, played with tender nuance by Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek, wibbling about at home, she wondering if/when her son is going to turn up, he wondering when his son is going to admit he threw some damn fight or other and become a man.

In yet another plotline we have Kate Mara, playing a local cop, the poor wee thing constantly intimidated by the macho police culture and by her father, also her boss. “What if you had to change a tampon?” he barks at her in front of her colleagues, when she asks why she can’t join the manhunt for Bana.

Without detailing the entire plot, Bana spends the film killing people and stumbling through the wintry snow, Olivia stumbles towards Charlie, Kate stumbles towards self-belief and the Kris and Sissy stumble about at home, pretending their characters serve a purpose before they are called on to host the grand finale Thanksgiving dinner.

There is great stuff in here. Mara is actually the most remarkable, in the most disposable plotline, a dainty figure required to show growing resolve. Wilde’s sexual oomph I’ve already mentioned. But the film’s exploration of family – psychotic and otherwise – doesn’t really catch hold until all the various plotlines are hastily gathered together at the redemptive Thanksgiving table, traditionally the site of much family hashing about.

It’s also the first time that Bana has been allowed inside after 90 minutes of bashing about in the snow. The fact that the film only gets going once we can see Bana’s eyes properly is not coincidental.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Deadfall – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate