THE DRY (2021)

May 20, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Remember when an exonerated OJ Simpson vowed to dedicate his time to finding “the real killer” of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman? For some reason that memory came back in the early stages of this film as a Melbourne-based Australian Federal Police agent returns to his isolated hometown after his childhood friend is implicated in a murder-suicide. See, that agent left town as a teenager when he was suspected of being involved in the murder of a local teenage girl.

Eric Bana (MUNICH, 2005) stars as that AFP agent Aaron Falk. He’s been gone for 20 years, but agrees to return for the funeral of his friend Luke (Martin Dingall Wall) at the request of Luke’s parents (Bruce Spence, Julia Blake). The parents don’t believe Luke would have killed his wife and one of his two kids and then committed suicide, and they want Luke to investigate. Of course, the rest of the town believes Luke did it, and most are none too happy that Aaron has returned, as they haven’t forgotten the suspicion tied to him for the tragedy that took the life of his friend Ellie (BeBe Bettencourt) so many years ago.

The stark contrast of glass and steel Melbourne towers and the drought-stricken cracked soil of (fictional) Kiewarra are as distinct as the comparison of today’s Kiewarra with Aaron’s flashbacks to those carefree days of swimming in the river with Ellie, Luke and their friend Gretchen – who is now a single mom played by Genevieve O’Reilly, and one of the few to welcome Aaron back. The film is based on the 2016 international best-selling novel by Jane Harper, and there is a lot to keep up with, despite a pace that never feels rushed. The two cases may be separated by twenty years, but they seem connected, even though we aren’t sure how murder and suicide and a slew of suspects all fit together. Aaron works with local police officer Greg Raco (an excellent Keir O’Donnell) in an attempt to make sense of what’s happened.

There are angry and suspicious people throughout the town. William Zappa plays Mal, Ellie’s grudge-bearing father, while Matt Nable plays her obnoxious and quick-to-accuse cousin Grant. James Frecheville (ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) is local farmer with a motive Jamie Sullivan, while John Polson plays school Principal Scott Whitlam who isn’t quite as put together as he’d like everyone to believe. Farmer Sullivan remarks (with the film’s best line), “You think you’re gonna get the truth in a town like this?”  And by that time, we know exactly what he means.

The flashbacks to Aaron’s teenage years provide much of the context to the story and his character, and they are handled beautifully. It’s a small town whose residents hold an abundance of secrets, rumors, and grudges, creating a web of misinformation that challenges Aaron and Officer Raco. The two cases (past and present) collide, and cinematographer Stefan Duscio does terrific work with the vast, dusty landscape, as well as the many interior shots where the characters reveal their true selves. Writer-director Robert Connolly (a heavy TV workload recently) co-wrote the script with Harry Cripps and Samantha Strauss, and they have created a suspenseful and entertaining whodunit. With the heavy dose of crime shows on TV these days, it’s a pleasure to see a well done film with high production value and a cohesive story. Just remember to use an alibi other than “shooting rabbits”, if you are ever working on a cover story.

Opening in theaters and on VOD on May 21, 2021

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BLACK 47 (2018)

September 27, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While filmmakers don’t tend to shy away from sad or even depressing characters or events, Ireland’s Great Famine has rarely been depicted on the big screen, for whatever reason. The film’s title refers to the worst year of the famine (1847). These were bleak times and folks were desperate – nearly without hope. More than one million people died, and between one million and two million emigrated from Ireland (depending on what time frame you exam). It all began with potato blight.

Director Lance Daly co-wrote the script with PJ Dillon, Eugene O’Brien, and Pierce Ryan, and have chosen to explain history through a personal story rather than an epic big picture one. Feeney (James Frecheville, ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010) goes AWOL from the British Army in order to check on his family. The home he finds hardly resembles the one he left. His mother is dead from starvation and his brother was hanged. The rest of his family has been evicted and is soon dead as well. Apparently what he witnessed in war prepared Feeney for the horrors he discovers in his homeland. To complicate matters, he is not only viewed as a deserter by the British, but also a traitor within his own community (for fighting for the British).

Feeney becomes a renegade on a mission to avenge the deaths in his family. The film plays like one of those Charles Bronson movies, where a man of principle believes in doling out his own form of justice. A posse of 4 is assembled to track down Feeney. Captain Pope (Freddie Fox, THE THREE MUSKATEERS, 2011) is a despicable soul and by-the-book soldier who blindly follows orders and ignores the suffering of citizens he views as barely human. Young Hobson (Barry Keoghan, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, 2017) is the Captain’s personal valet, while Conneely (Stephen Rea) is local added as a translator – and some much needed comic relief. The most interesting of the group is Hannah, a disgraced Inspector and Feeney’s former commanding officer.

Hugo Weaving (THE MATRIX) plays Hannah as a man driven to the edge by his war experience. One a hero, now slightly unstable in his actions, Hannah agrees to join the posse instead of spending his life in prison. His commitment to the cause is always in question, as we are led to believe there is much to the connection of Hannah and Feeney … a connection that plays out dramatically when they finally cross paths again. Mr. Weaving’s great face is contrasted nicely by Mr. Frecheville’s dead eyes (‘like a doll’s eyes’).

The revenge mission plays out with some violence, but director Daly never stoops to gratuitous gore. Instead, we typically see the aftermath … one of which brings a twist to the phrase “pig-headed”. Feeney’s time as a soldier has well prepared him for this mission. Even Crocodile Dundee would be proud of Feeney’s knife, and he does tend to make a statement with each of his killings.

Supporting work is provided by Jim Broadbent, Moe Dunford (“Vikings”), and Sarah Greene (“Penny Dreadful”). There are a couple of themes on display here: the politics (and power grab) of the time, and one man’s drive to knock down corruption and clean up his beloved country … while showing no mercy to those who have harmed his family. The contempt for the British is quite clear. Religion doesn’t escape commentary and judgment, with a sequence involving a Protestant minister, a Roman Catholic priest and a soup line with a catch.

Director of Photographer Declan Quinn (MONSOON WEDDING, IN AMERICA, LEAVING LAS VEGAS) does work capturing the contrast between beautiful vistas and incredible hardships. The stunning Connemara (western Australia) landscape is offset by immense suffering and cruelty … only the art design is a bit shaky, which is understandable given budgetary challenges. Though we’ve rarely, if ever, seen such a cinematic treatment of this era, it’s clear the guns misfired more often than this production.

watch the trailer:


ANIMAL KINGDOM (2010)

August 29, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. An Australian movie that packs a wallop! Writer/Director David Michod delivers an unsettling look into one family’s life of crime and the corresponding order of things – the circle of life in the Animal Kingdom. Supposedly based on a true story, this is a tough family that you would not want as relatives.  These are not smooth operators like Scorcese provided in Casino or Goodfellas.  No, in fact, these guys are much worse.

The matriarch is played chillingly by Jacki Weaver. She is mother or grandmother to the guys (except for one outsider) in the band of crooks. While she messes with your mind through the story, it’s not until the final 15 minutes when she really kicks it up a notch and becomes flat out frightening in her power.

There are only a couple of actors that most people would recognize. Joel Edgerton is the outsider in the group, and the one trying to go straight by playing the stock market with his “earnings”. The other is Guy Pearce, who plays the detective trying to both solve the cases and rescue young Josh, played by newcomer James Frecheville.

Not only is this the type of story that sucks you in, it is a reminder of just how distracting movie stars can be to a film. The lack of stars allows us to really be absorbed into this family, or better, this world of crime, deceit, corruption and paranoia. There is not a single movie star – no one who can capitalize on his film history of characters and immediately generate recognition. Here, the viewer must get to know an entire family for who and what they are. This is powerful stuff for a film lover.

The winner for best psychopath is Ben Mendelsohn as Pope. His dead eyes will scare you. His demeanor will scare you. His actions will disgust you. There are two lines in the film that help us make sense of what occurs. Early on, the narrator tells us that “all crooks come undone” at some point. Later, the detective (Pearce) tells us that in the Animal Kingdom, you are either weak or strong. The lines seem pretty clear.

The focus of the film is on Josh (Frecheville) who gets plopped into this family of criminals after his mom dies of an overdose and he calls his long-lost grandmother (Weaver). Josh spends the rest of the film trying to blend in while staying clean. Of course, even his stoic mask doesn’t save him from the path of destruction created by Pope.  The only question is, can he find a way to survive or escape?

In the end, the film is about survival, adaptation and exploring what really defines strong and weak, good and bad. Are you weak or strong?  It’s not always easy to tell … and beware of the quiet ones.  If you enjoy powerful crime thrillers, this one is worth checking out … and be appreciative for the lack of Hollywood star power. That’s part of why it works!