Outback Noir: Australian Darkness in the Noon Day Sun

No doubt other, similar films exist but three Australian films set in the outback and made over the span of a decade suggest a persistent obsession with the darkness of the landscape, the nation (and its origins), and the pathologies that lurk in the hearts of men. We find little of the romanticism that masks the dark deeds behind the “winning” of the west in the United States. Instead, The Proposition, Swerve, and The Rover paint a picture of a harsh, unforgiving, uninviting, barren and even vile world that brings out the worst in those who wander through it. Settled life scarcely exists and when it does it is extremely precarious, most poignantly in the white picket fenced off house of Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) and his wife Martha (Emily Watson). The fence is purely symbolic and its violators pay it no heed.

We find few women as well. The femme fatale seems superfluous to the deranged damage men can inflict on each other and themselves. That there is such a character in Swerve is mainly a sign of the film’s loss of nerve: it falters and swings toward the American model, Red Rock West in particular as others have noted, when the male hearts of darkness are more than enough to prople the story forward (as they do brilliantly in the opening sequence).

The Proposition and The Rover are the stronger films of the three. Each pursues its premise with relentless energy and each, it turns out, features a superb performance by Guy Pearce. Hard, determined and utterly obsessed in The Rover, Pearce brings a demonic energy to these films that is lacking in the slightly softer personalities of Swerve.

All three suggest that the Mad Max, Road Warrior world of one generation has not exhausted efforts to fathom what kind of men inhabit the outback and how they can be tied to Australia’s origins as a penal colony and colonial like expansion at the expense of the Aboriginal population. That population is marginally present in The Propostion particularly as a base note of foreboding retrospectively cast back upon the past. It is a reminder of deeds done and their repercussions into a subsequently darker, bleaker present.

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22 Jump Street Falls Flat

Praise piles up. That this film mocks its own silliness, refers to its generic conventions endlessly, has characters who act as if they’re in a sequel to a film they’ve already been in, has no one to really root for and no thematic density has become the ultimate compliment it seems. Critics seem to love a film that mocks its own limitations, deflates any high-minded expectations, and effortlessly does their job for them: a pan becomes a kudo and everyone’s happy.
22 does it all: which means it does nothing but does it with aplomb, irony and humor. And Jonah Hill gives some depth, or at least a superficial patina to his character while Channing Tatum struggles to fall into character, sputters through the comedy, comes alive when he has to dance spontaneously and, with his budding buddy romance with the jock star of the college football, injects a hip note of fluid sexuality into it all. Why praise this meatball mashup of lame jokes and plotless meanderings? It’s the New Paradigm, perhaps inspired by video games and text messaging, that eschews complexity, character development, narrative tautness, suspense, and thematic thoughtfulness. Things just pile up and we’re asked to be happy with the tottering heap of stuff that makes the pile. And this is all a Good Thing, at least if a number of critics, plus a very healthy box office, are the judge. Maybe in times of environmental decay, endless war, great wealth and plenty–but only for 1 or 2%, and rabid, hateful, fear-mongering politics as the new normal, this is the best escape Hollywood can offer and gratitude abounds.
I’ll just cast a negative vote into the pool and see if it floats. If there were some rich wit to it all, some dimensionality to characters, some density to the plot, and some reward for devoting two hours to this little heap of cliches, I’d lean a bit more toward praise, but for now, I’ll just point the thumb down and await further enlightenment for the devotees.