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.