Kieran Darcy-Smith’s debut feature Wish You Were Here is among the most polished, tense and intriguing Australian psychological thrillers of recent years.
The genre has been a staple of Australian cinema for many decades and was a recurring motif in the early works of directors such as Peter Weir, Jocelyn Moorhouse and Colin Eggleston.
For the purposes of this article, we’re looking at thrillers with a strong psychological edge, not crime dramas such as Animal Kingdom, Snowtown, Two Hands and The Boys, or horror movies like Wolf Creek.
If Wish You Were Here is the hit it deserves to be, it will help reverse a downward trend in the thriller category following a spate of recent box-office flops including Blame, Wasted on the Young, Caught Inside and Face to Face.
Here’s my appraisal of the most memorable psychological thrillers, some solid achievers and a couple of lesser offerings.
The most chilling:
The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)
Peter Weir’s debut feature (following his 1971, 50-minute black-and-white black comedy, Homesdale) about a guy who gets stranded in a country town after a car accident and realises there’s been an abnormally high number of prangs in the area was a box-office dud in Australia. But the low budget effort was warmly received at the Cannes Film Festival and has since been regarded as a highly original film that’s both macabre and darkly funny.
Dead Calm (1987)
Two men, a woman and a boat are all director Phillip Noyce, screenwriter Terry Hayes and cinematographer Dean Semler needed to create this masterpiece of suspense. Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill are terrific as a couple who embark on a cruise after Nic’s character has a car accident in which their young son died. Unwisely, they rescue Billy Zane who claims he’s the only survivor of a bout of food poisoning which killed his crewmates.
The Interview (1998)
Tony Martin’s cop mercilessly interrogates Hugo Weaving’s suspected criminal before the tables are turned in this suspenseful, claustrophobic drama from first-time director/co-writer Craig Monahan. It’s a gripping cat-and-mouse game between the two men, with many a twist and turn.
An ensemble cast led by Anthony LaPaglia, Kerry Armstrong, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey and Rachel Blake combine superbly in director Ray Lawrence’s powerful tale of lust, trust, betrayal and guilt, written by Andrew Bovell, based on his play Speaking in Tongues.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
Peter Weir’s mesmerising tale of the disappearance of three schoolgirls and a teacher during an excursion on St. Valentine's Day in 1900 ranks among the most memorable films in Australian cinema. Roger Ebert lauded a film of “haunting mystery and buried sexual hysteria [which] also employs two of the hallmarks of modern Australian films: beautiful cinematography and stories about the chasm between settlers from Europe and the mysteries of their ancient new home.”
Writer-director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s debut feature revolves around a blind photographer (Hugo Weaving), his prickly housekeeper (Genevieve Picot) and his handsome young friend (Russell Crowe), a dishwasher. The New York Times hailed it as “a darkly clever Australian drama focusing on brilliant, wickedly manipulative characters whose attachment to one another is matched only by their mutual loathing.”
Wish You Were Here (2012)
Four Aussies head off for a week of sun, swimming and partying in Cambodia but only three come home in this cleverly-constructed drama from first-time director/co-writer Kieran Darcy-Smith. Co-scripted by the director’s wife Felicity Price, who also plays one of the quartet, the film evolves into an enticing tale of lies, sex, betrayal and guilt. Joel Edgerton plays Dave, a seemingly easy-going Sydney boat builder who goes on vacation with his pregnant wife Alice (Price), her younger sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) and Steph’s recently acquired boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr), who goes missing.
[ Read interview with Wish You Were Here writer/director Kieran Darcy-Smith ]
Alexandra’s Project (2003)
Helen Buday and Gary Sweet star in Rolf de Heer’s twisted tale of a depressed woman who exacts a terrible revenge against her average Joe of a husband on his birthday, set almost totally in their living room.
Boxing Day (2007)
Kriv Stenders’ film about a recovering alcoholic who’s preparing a Christmas meal for his teenage daughter when an old but dangerous friend turns up was shot as a single 80-minute take. It had a limited theatrical run (I missed it) but garnered favourable reviews in The Age and in Geoff Gardner’s Senses of Cinema, and director Brian Trenchard-Smith hailed it as an extraordinary achievement in “balls-to-the-wind” filmmaking.
The Chain Reaction (1980)
Writer-director Ian Barry’s debut feature, whose screenplay predates The China Syndrome, focuses on a leak at a nuclear plant and a contaminated scientist (Ross Thompson) who tries to warn the outside world. Steve Bisley and Arna-Maria Winchester play a couple who help the fugitive scientist.
The Hunter (2011)
Daniel Nettheim ‘s film starring Willem Dafoe as an enigmatic mercenary sent to track down the last surviving Tasmanian tiger poses more questions than it answers and is hindered by having as the lead character a taciturn loner whose changes in behaviour aren’t explained, undercutting the empathy that audiences may feel for him.
Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney deliver fine performances as a troubled couple in Ray Lawrence’s intense relationships drama but the screenplay based on a Raymond Carver short story loses momentum when it veers into a myriad sub-plots including racism, provincialism and the gulf between the sexes.
Last Ride (2010)
Glendyn Ivin’s debut feature boasts fine performances led by Hugo Weaving as a thuggish ex-con who embarks on a road trip with Tom Russell as his hurt, frightened 10-year-old son Chook. But Hugo’s Kev is so emotionally repressed and inarticulate, it’s hard to feel much sympathy, let alone empathy, for such a dysfunctional character.
Long Weekend (1978)
John Hargreaves and Briony Behets play a bickering couple who set off for a weekend trip to the coast and discover Mother Nature is in a really bad mood in Colin Eggleston’s eerie, nightmarish film scripted by Everett De Roche (who also wrote Patrick, Roadgames, Razorback and Visitors).
Wake me up when it’s over:
Red Hill (2010)
Ryan Kwanten and Steve Bisley star in Patrick Hughes’ film which tries to blend several genres – Aussie Western, horror, thriller – but resorts to lazy clichés, a silly supernatural element and unexplained behaviour.
Alister Grierson’s subterranean survival saga suffers from hammy acting, woeful miscasting, lack of tension and stodgy dialogue… none of it, apart from the expertly-staged action sequences, worthy of James Cameron’s presence as executive producer.