Sunday, 12 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival (2) - Max Berghouse reviews Ivan Sen's Goldstone

Goldstone (2016) is the second film of the director Ivan Sen to feature the character of police detective Jay Swan and again stars Aaron Pedersen. I am not going to detail in this short note either with noting the acting or production staff. This is readily available on such sites as IMDb.
To slightly paraphrase the doxology of the Latin Mass, "Through him, with him and in him....." It seems more significant to say that just about everything in this film was under the direct control of Mr Sen who was writer, director, editor, cinematographer and also scored the music.
As I left the film on its opening night I observed that already the principal and most highly regarded sites of review, like Variety had already published their reviews and the consistent line has been that this is a modern day film Noir. I don't agree with this, partly on definitional lines because film Noir is essentially urban, frequently if not generally has a femme fatale, is studio bound which facilitates the particular physical look of light and shadow but principally because such an attitude negates the very strong similarities, in my view, in this film, to a number of John Ford westerns which were shot in the Monument Valley. The landscape of the film is almost completely unrecognisably Australia and is superbly realised without quite the depth that Ford could maintain, almost making the backdrop a character in itself and certainly enabling it to highlight the actions of the protagonists. I would emphasise just how good are the fixed camera tracking shots, sweeping into the distance – just like Ford.
I see this film as a perfectly competent, indeed superior thriller. A sort of superior Midsomer Murder baked with a heavy sauce of violence. The sort of tele-movie to be shown to stay in couples on a weekend viewing, just after peak time. That is not in itself a criticism – a worthwhile commercial production is valuable in itself. I don't agree that the film is freighted with any extra social significance such as commentary on white – indigenous relationships, nor on the perils of slavery for prostitution. True it is that the plot is set in area where there is (apparently, because the numbers of aboriginals actually on-screen is limited) an aboriginal community and Land Council, but the plotline of a large corporate mining giant attempting to overtly suborn innocent and relatively powerless individuals is not colour weighted. Aborigines are there, but they could just as easily be white. Similarly the prostitutes suborned at the local bar/brothel are South Asian but could just as easily have been black brown or brindle. Colour is irrelevant.
During the introduction of the film by the Festival Director in company with the film director, the latter indicated that he hoped the film to some extent facilitate the reconciliation of relationships between indigenous and white Australia. He did not use these words specifically and my memory is not absolutely clear about the words he did use. Rather than recite them in garbled fashion which may offend some sensibilities, it may be easier just to say that I can see no such connection and indeed find it fairly offensive to have to see someone clutching for substance to make the film apparently more "valuable".
During that introduction Mr Sen paid particular tribute to his production completion bond company. Bearing in mind that he had so many tasks in the film one would anticipate that the film went well and truly over budget. It's unlikely that he could have commenced editing until he had finished directing, nor could he compose music until he had finished editing. Some of these tasks presumably occurred in a linear fashion whereas in most productions they overlap. This might account, at least in part, for my relatively restrained applause for this film. I think it is generally a bad idea for the director to be screenwriter. An external editor, if not scriptwriter, can interpose objectivity, which I think in this script is lacking. There are a number of themes which admittedly do work their way to more or less conclusion, but the film is exceptionally "busy", and not the better for it.
The film commences with Jay Swan, driving a very battered early model Toyota Land Cruiser towards "town" while severely inebriated. So check: old battered car – that's going to be written off somewhere in the production! Aaron Pedersen is a very competent actor and I don't wish to diminish his skills by saying that he doesn't get "drunk" quite right. It is a very hard thing for an actor to do. He has been commissioned by the Federal Police (we don't learn why) to find a missing woman from the "town". He is pulled over by the local constable (Alex Russell) who throughout the film maintains a perfectly groomed 3 or 4 day beard growth and is consistently dressed in jeans with large Western buckle and flannel shirt. Such would be impossible in Australia, but presumably is to play better in the United States. Although not dealt with at length (more's the pity in my view) he has his own demons being stationed so far away from civilisation. I was exceptionally struck in his performance and in his vicissitudes by the much earlier Australian film Wake in Fright, (Ted Kotcheff, 1970) still in my view the very finest Australian film.
Imprisoned for disorderly behaviour and then released and then mysteriously attacked in his motel, Swan is transferred by Josh the constable to a ramshackle bush house literally in the middle of nowhere. That's probably the best place to go because there is no "town" in any event. There appears to be a few houses occupied by the local aboriginals while the white settlement for the nearby goldmine miners and related staff consists in a series of sea containers. If one reflects upon this as it develops, the "civilians" are in fact a quite small number of aboriginal people and the "miners" are an equally small number of whites plus some Pacific Islander security guards. This is entirely understandable in terms of budget but is scarcely consistent with what (from stock footage) is shown to be a very large open cut mine.
The head honcho of the mining operation on site is Johnny (David Wenham) who plays the role as a fairly diffident and fearful, inappropriately dressed (shorts and long socks) yes-man who does not seem to have the balls to control the trigger-happy, violent and exceptionally large security force. He is at pains to make sure the audience knows that "this actor knows his chops". He is in a relationship with "the Mayor" (Jackie Weaver) and together they are conspiring to ensure that the Land Council approves their plans for the expansion of the mine. In his initial investigations Swan goes to the mine, passes a security fence with the usual "Keep Out" type sign whereupon he is assailed by said security force. It is indicated that they have the right to use guns and exclude trespassers. Why therefore Johnny and the Mayor need consent of the Land Council is beyond me. As I have previously said these infelicities should have been corrected by more rigourous editing.
The head of the Land Council is corrupt and in the pocket of the Mayor and Johnny. Under very little pressure he agrees to "remove" the only holdout in consent for the mines expansion – Uncle Jimmy (David Gulpilil) who is found subsequently hanged from a tree but not before he has told Swan that this is the area that he Swan was born in and that he, Swan has two older brothers, all apparently removed as children into "care". This is not taken any further and I suggest it might be slipped in something of relevance to the next film in what may well be a series. That Swan would not know – at all – where he comes from and at the same time is not treated as kin by other aboriginals in the area, strikes me as strange indeed. Subsequently the Land Council Chairman, Tommy, confesses to Josh to the murder, but with no reason. His comment as to feeling guilty rings false and it is simply a device to bring this aspect of the film to a conclusion.
Meanwhile Josh conducts his own investigations by going to the brothel which clearly he has made use of before – and probably for free – to interrogate one of the Asian women. At the risk of being accused of being racist, I cannot readily identify which of the five he both interrogates and confides in. I think it is May (Michelle Lim Davidson). In any event all the women are quite stunning, not that that is entirely relevant. The confidante really seems far too intelligent in the way she brings Josh to a sense of purpose.
There are a number of infelicities in the film in terms of "facts/events" which once revealed are not taken any further. My surmise is that these are for the benefit of the next film. Included in these are Swan's drinking, which may be related to the death of his only child, a daughter, subsequent to Sen's prior film Mystery Road, the discovery of enormous feral dog paw prints (apparently a danger to all) which I think it replicates the same situation in the prior film and a final reference by Josh in the maudlin conclusion between himself and Swan that he is going to try and get a transfer to the ocean (to wash the dirt from him) which seems to indicate that film number three will be set at Bondi.
I ought to mention Uncle Jimmy who looks terribly worn and I mention that Mr Gulpilil wears very substantially American Western clothing. Drainpipe jeans, wide hat and a string tie around his neck which is admittedly secured by a clasp which appears to be a miniature map of Australia. It seemed to me to be an unconscious gesture on the part of the director, but a true sign of deracination which I found very troubling.
Although I thought that the partial enlightenment brought to Swan by Uncle Jimmy by his taking him in a bark canoe along a narrow river gorge replete with aboriginal hand paintings and which Swan returns at the end alone, was trite, nonetheless it was superbly photographed.
The great misfortune for the film I think is that those who see it is making some relevant comment on aboriginality, corporate corruption and slaving/prostitution thereby miss the point that Mr Sen has quite superb visual style. He frequently uses a helicopter to capture vast distances cut only by a single road traversing into the nothingness of infinity. The use of a helicopter might be somewhat excessive but becomes especially powerful when he freezes the downward vista, just as it were, to contemplate its emptiness. 
Moreover it causes ignorance of just how fine an action director he is. There are two shootouts, the first very similar to "Mystery Road" in which Swan saves Josh from the impending death by shooting down from a mountainside with conspicuous accuracy. He makes use of a "bolt action Winchester" specifically referenced in the script and used by Swan with exceptional accuracy and aplomb. The scrape of the bolt, the firm click of the lock, the report of the bullet being fired and the thud of its finding its target, are all lovingly, possibly lasciviously played out. The second concerns Swan and Josh both arming themselves with multiple shot, sawn off shotguns (which I do not think are standard equipment for police at least in Australia) and shooting out the security force along with its thug like locals while Johnny escapes. This leads to a false moment with Swan rushing to the airfield where Johnny is climbing into a small plane to escape, Swan firing at the embarking plane and being fired back at by a simply monstrous Maori like black clad security guard with I think an Uzi submachine gun. How the guard could have missed is beyond me, but then as he approaches the kneeling Swan, for the coup de grace, without explanation he simply walks away. 
There are altogether too many of these inexplicable and illogical development points which enabled the action to move forward but are not resolutions of what has gone before.
It may seem that I'm scrupulously excessively critical of this film and I suppose I am in terms of any pretense it may have the being other than what I think it is. As a straight thriller it's fine, indeed very good. As anything else, I think it fails. No one can doubt the technical skills of the director which are amply on display, with I think, the reservation of the music which I consider inappropriate and lacking in subtlety at many moments. At certain moments volume increases substantially, so that the music does not simply emphasise what is going on, it overburdens it.

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