Details: 87 mins, In Cinemas 7 June 2012, Australia, English
Synopsis: Driving cross-country to a job interview, Colin (David Lyons) plays it safe when he has car problems and takes a short cut to a one horse town. But as luck would have it, he comes across a fatal road accident. One of the drivers, Jina (Emma Booth), is shaken, the other dead and beside him, a briefcase full of money. When Colin resists temptation and does the right thing, turning it into the local cop (Jason Clarke), his good deed causes a series of fateful events to unfold.
Thrills trump depth in B-movie throwback.
Here’s a brief run-down of what happens in the first 10 minutes of Swerve, an outback-set chase thriller written and directed by Craig Lahiff: there’s a bag of money, a drug deal, an explosion, a really spectacular car crash, and one highway near miss. It’s exciting stuff. It conjures all sorts of intense feelings of anticipation in the best B-movie tradition (and I mean that as a compliment).
Hard-boiled crime movies often start off with a bang; Swerve practically leaps from the screen, screaming hysterics. Lahiff, a film industry veteran of such pics like the thriller Heaven’s Burning and drama Black and White, kicks off Swerve with such a high energy serve of plot points, action and intrigue, it plays less like a movie and more like a trailer. Cinematographer David Foreman has given the film a slick visual feel; it’s not ‘gritty’ outback here. Instead, the film seems to be deliberately artificial, abstract. Even the outback light seems toned down and the interior scenes have a shadowy unreal feel. I got the feeling that the film might be fun in a movie-conscious sort of way; I thought Lahiff might be out to satirise genre tropes and styles, or at least have a bit of play with them a la Tarantino, since the cast fulfil, very neatly, thriller archetypes.
Still, once the characters start talking and interacting the movie’s bristling buzz just seems to flick off. The parts are pre-set and the dialogue doesn’t have the one-line kick of the best film noir; the lines are serviceable to the point and a bit boring. The earnest tone kills the fun. Lahiff hasn’t given the actors much more to work with other than a set of attitudes and primal fears. They’re just there to fill out the plot.
The main players are Jina, who is lethally blonde and played by Emma Booth. This character is a throwback to ‘90s erotic thrillers; the kind of woman who’ll flounce about naked in front of the movie’s anti-hero as a means of getting attention. She’s supposed to be dangerous, but she’s more decorative femme than fatale.
In the story, Jina is unhappily married – in pics like this marriage doesn’t come any other way – to a small town cop Frank, played by the excellent Jason Clarke. Frank is short tempered, jealous, pathological and crooked. He might even be a bit nasty sexually. Clarke almost manages to make Frank believable. But psychological credibility in Swerve seems of little consequence. The point is that Frank is a scary monster.
The other main character is Colin (David Lyons). Square-jawed, stubbled (an ‘80s throwback that), strong looking but vulnerable, Colin comes off honest. But ‘honest’ in this movie is like wearing a sign on your back that says ‘road kill’. Colin’s decency makes him vulnerable, a dupe, a guy destined to take the fall for the sinister impulses of, say, Jina or Frank.
As the film opens, Colin, an ex-soldier, is travelling through the desert on his way to a job in Broken Hill. He never makes it. There’s the fateful encounter on the road with Jina and a bad guy killed in the wreck in that opening scene. It’s Colin who finds the bag of money. He turns it into Frank in the nearest town, a tiny hamlet with the weird name of ‘Neverest’. Before you can say ‘chase’ another bad guy turns up to stir the story elements, Charlie (Travis McMahon); he’s after the bag of money and, just so we know he means business, seems to go about Frank’s town doing serious damage to the film’s peripheral characters impersonated by great Aussie character actors like Roy Billing and Chris Haywood. Vince Colosimo turns up too as Jina’s mean-spirited boss who may or may not have sexual designs on Jina.
Lahiff is a screenwriter who understands the movie concept of jeopardy; Swerve lays out an intricate pattern where all moves to escape end up false exits. He’s a great student of thrillers – the film is chock of full of thriller tropes and they’re used inventively. Any fan of film noir will have great fun trainspotting the movie references Lahiff employs here; there’s infidelity, a mysterious disappearance, chance, coincidence, misunderstanding, false endings, twists, reversals, bodies that won’t stay dead, fake identities, chases and there may even be a Hitchcock homage intended in the film’s attenuated climax, set aboard a speeding night train.
But what Lahiff hasn’t given the film is rigor, tension and much suspense. It’s frantic and busy. Thrillers are traditionally tough to follow; this isn’t really, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Motivations are fudged, details are vague, and plausibility is MIA. But what’s finally depressing as a thriller fan (and I am one) is that there doesn’t seem to be any point to the mayhem; even the lowliest thrillers I know and love seek to engage in human dynamics and contemplate fate, sex, power, etc. however modestly, and often with an eloquence that’s more powerfully cogent than so called serious drama. In the end, Swerve, doesn’t seem to be about anything other than its own mechanics. And that gets tedious very quick.
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