Sunday 27 September 2015

Cut Snake - We dont do crime pictures very well

Back in December 2012, Screen Australia  announced it would invest over $11.4 million in five feature films and six television series, one of which is for children. The story was reported thus in Inside Film
The feature projects include Kill Me Three Times from Red Dog director Kriv Stenders, The Darkside from writer/director Warwick Thornton, debut feature Fell from Kasimir Burgess, crime-thriller Cut Snake from director Tony Ayres (Home Song Stories) and comedy Now Add Honey from successful comedy team Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler (The Librarians).
Screen Australia’s Chief Executive Ruth Harley said, “It’s great to end the year investing in such a dynamic range of feature films from a good mix of experienced practitioners and emerging talent.
“I’m thrilled to announce Warwick Thornton’s highly creative and resonant Indigenous story, The Darkside. The smart and stylish thriller Cut Snake comes from a talented and experienced team and Kill Me Three Times is a well-told tale that knows its genre and audience from one of Australia’s most renowned and respected film directors, Kriv Stenders.....”
Warwick Thornton got The Darkside  done and dusted pretty quickly, by the end of 2013 if I recall. It was a remarkable movie though very modest in its means and its ambitions. Extremely limited theatrical release was quickly followed by screenings on the ABC main channel. Fell had a screening at the Sydney Film Festival and producer John Maynard tried out some experimental marketing whereby the film quickly went straight to some video on demand service. Now Add Honey, a domestic rom-com disappeared off the radar but emerged to be selected as the opening night presentation for this year’s AFI/AACTA Awards presumably prior to a commercial opening shortly.  

Cut Snake premiered at the Melbourne Film Festival in 2014 and was a month or so later selected for screening at Toronto in 2014 along with Kill Me Three Times. Don Groves rounded up some critical reports out of the festival which only mentioned Cut Snake. There were mostly positive comments.  (Since then Kill Me Three Times seems to have near disappeared playing none of the major Australian festivals but has recently been released on DVD.)

Now Cut Snake has its moment in the sun. A four star review by Paul Byrnes in the SMH backed it up. There may have been more critical support but I don’t keep up.  However only a handful of punters turned up for the main Friday evening screening at the Dendy Newtown and on that very anecdotal basis I suspect the movie has flopped. No one wants to see what Dr Ruth called, almost three years ago a “smart and stylish thriller ... from a talented and experienced team.”

I dont recall a Tony Ayres feature film that has grabbed any big stake in the local audience. His adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap however was a big hit, a worthy representation of the already iconic novel that peeled back the skin of life in the inner suburbs amongst the urban milieu of middle class drug takers, philanderers and dissatified wives. But lurking within every director is a desire to have a crack at a noir, a crime story, a movie with gangsters and guns and desirable women whom men fight over and make fools of themselves about. Doing something in the genre has a universal appeal. Everyone has an idea that will have them compared to Altman and his The Long Goodbye or Hawks The Big Sleep. But its fair to say that the seemingly effortless work of an Altman or a Hawks isn't as easy as it looks.

Watching Cut Snake It makes me ponder this conundrum again for it goes to the heart of the kind of crime films we make here, especially those that come the mill of funding by Screen Australia and the glowing words in advance by (the now departed) Ruth Harley. Let me as a qualifier that we seem to do crime quite well on TV – everything from vintage things on the ABC through franchises like Underbelly which pillage the history of such people as my former school attendees Christopher Dale Flannery and Tony Mokbel all the way tothose smart Jack Irish telemovies with Guy Pearce and the great collection of Fitzroy supporters in the pub which seems to sell about eight beers a day to its denizens.  

But, inevitably because of the nature of a slow moving government supported/propped up industry, we don’t have any feature film directors who specialise in the area even to the extent that they have such craftsman in the Sandinavian countries in exactly the same way as the Scandi nations do huge amounts of crime writing. (We actually do have a cottage industry of Australian crime writers.) But every so often over the years some among the more talented list of directors get to have a crack at something that resembles an attempt to play to the rules of the genre. There will be more than this that might quickly come to mind but Gregor Jordan, David Michod. David Caesar, Ivan Sen and now Tony Ayres have all had a crack at it and none really delivered very much. I don’t think any of their pictures are going to assume the place that say Jean-Pierre Melville’s movies do in French cinema or the place occupied by Seijun Suzuki,  Miike Takashi or Takeshi Kitano in Japan or goodness knows how many beyond Andy Lau and Johnnie To in Hong Kong. This is all off the top of the head but it’s prompted by wondering about Cut Snake and its back story of gay prison love which comes to threaten love, peace and equilibrium for a seemingly charming young couple.

Crime films give you the chance to talk about something else while keeping your audience involved in mysterious, frequently enigmatic but playful  and usually violent activity. Cut Snake  in fact takes unpleasantness quite some way. The bashings are very strongly represented, especially that of a pimp in the back room of a pub. Sullivan Stapleton, who started perfecting his act in Michod’s debut feature Animal Kingdom,  does menace and physical threat very well and Tony Ayres sets up the scene for confrontation. All of it occurs way way back in 1974, the pre-AIDS era. I’m not sure why that is except for the fact that AIDS might complicate things more than needed.  Sullivan as Pommie, the recently released hard-boiled crim is an authentic character, full of spite and meanness and like most petty criminals utterly lacking in affect. Completely stupid is another way of putting it. His attempts to resume a gay prison relationship with the gentle Merv, now planning marriage to a sweet young waitress, creates a genuine edge though the film squibs the more exciting possibilities of Pommie simultaneously pursuing the young waitress's friend as well as Merv. 

There is some tension but the film rushes toward a violent finale rather than engages itself with any intricate plotting. (Melville always had a genuine piece of criminal endeavour working its way through the story, the relationships and the betrayals of trust.) It all pans out into stock heroics. Hmmmm... Not very convincing and all brought about by some very mediocre cops. The ending simply lacks authentic agony.

Hard to say that it was worth the three year, or was that four years, wait for this to get done.

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