Monday 4 December 2023

Streaming on Stan - Rod Bishop sees an opportunity missed with SCRUBLANDS (Dir: Greg McLean, From a novel by Chris Hammer, Australia, 2023)

Reviewing Scrublands in The Guardian, Luke Buckmaster gives it a 4 out of 5-star rating and crowns it “a rock-solid addition to the Australian rural noir genre”.

While the setting is obviously rural, this four-part series on Stan is hardly noir. 

Most of the recognizable noir elements – cynical, pessimistic protagonists; stark lighting (sometimes with chiaroscuro effect); femme fatales who destabilize the central male character’s dramatic arc; flashbacks; voice-overs; fatalism; existentialism; and hard-boiled characters - are all missing from Scrublands.

And there’s no such thing as a “noir genre”, anyway. Film noir was a film movement, not a genre, and there’s a big difference. 

Noir is generally accepted as starting about the time of The Maltese Falcon (1940) and ending about the time of A Touch of Evil (1958). Like other film movements – such as Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave - they come and go, while genres such as rom-coms, Westerns and comedies and have been around since the birth of cinema. 

Film noir had its roots in the film movement of German Expressionism; the American crime films of the 1930s; the disillusioned veterans from World War II; French existentialism; and the growing new fears of the Cold War. Noir made after 1958 – if the films contained recognizable noir elements - are often referred to as neo-noir, but almost always are diluted pale imitations. Melville’s Le Samouraï is a stand-out exception.

A crime series adapted from a novel by Chris Hammer, the opening hook of Scrublands is a seemingly benign priest shooting and killing five of his flock after mass. He doesn’t then “turn the gun on himself” as reported in Luke Buckmaster’s review, but he turns the gun on the local cop forcing the cop to execute the priest and commit a ‘suicide by police’. 

Luke Arnold as Martin Scarsden, Scrublands

The protagonist is the very likable, well-meaning Sydney Morning Herald investigative journalist Martin Scarsden (Luke Arnold). He is taking a break from hard investigations to write a weekend “puff piece” on how, one year later, the small, rural township of Riversend is coping with the priest’s murderous outrage. He falls for the owner of the only bookshop in town and she’s also the only resident initially willing to talk with him.

Through her, Martin realizes there is more to the priest and the killings than anyone, including the SMH, previously thought. Through the first two episodes, this line of inquiry builds up an admirable and tense dramatic arc, but once the characters and their roles are bedded down, all that’s left is exposition - for the two more episodes. The tension disappears and the various implausibilities start to grate.

Opportunity missed. 


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