Details: (M), 74 mins, In Cinemas 2 September 2010, Australia, English
Synopsis: Two men, lost in the Australian desert, or are they? Hurtle (Gary Sweet), a tough Aussie bloke and ex-con, and Tahir (Hazem Shammas), a soft-spoken, Afghani-Australian, are near death as they stumble across Jen (Louise Crawford), a headstrong American soldier stationed alone on a remote military base. In good faith, and against regulations, Jen offers to help Tahir and Hurtle. But when Tahir drops a GPS Unit from his pocket, it becomes clear that they’re not lost, they’re exactly where they planned to be.
A desert mystery with a ‘50s B movie mindset.
In a lot of ways The Tumbler is really great fun. For starters, it’s got one of those mystery style plots that just keeps on coming, with twists, business, and back-story. It’s so knotty writer Chris Thompson must have mapped out it all out on a whiteboard; it’s the kind of lucid thriller that’s quite riveting in the moment, but continually and deliberately mystifies complete apprehension. That is, until the tension can’t be sustained any longer. It seems to make little sense at it unwinds, but once the pieces are together it fits in an intriguing way that’s really satisfying.
Director Marc Gracie whose CV, which boasts, of all things, TV work like the Adventures of Lano & Woodley, in no way anticipates the kind of harsh, high stakes political content here. The movie’s characters and narrative co-mingles Australia’s nuclear past with straight-from-the-headlines paranoia about terrorism. Gracie’s direction is all about mis-direction; that is, this is a story where identities are scrambled, and true motives are disguised.
The plot starts off as an unlikely heist movie. Two men, Hurtle (Gary Sweet), a ‘tumbler’ (safecracker), and Tahir (Hazem Shammas), con their way into a US base in outback Australia. Though it seems to be a strategic and important military facility the place has only one guard, Jen (Louise Crawford) – everyone else, it seems, are out on manoeuvres. Tahir, has the plan – apparently there’s a lot of gold buried on the site, in an underground bunker, built by the Australian government during World War II at the time when fear of a successful Japanese invasion was deep. From here, the plot reversals just keep coming.
A lot of the film’s momentum is too dependent on a character, who seems to be somewhat peripheral to the main action (but not, alas, to Thompson’s deeper themes). Or to put it another way, there’s an Indigenous character, Nikki (Suzannah Bayes-Morton), an outback postie, who turns up whenever the action needs to get out of a stall.
Still, for all of its considerable virtues as a screen story the movie feels thin as a movie. This is most certainly due to the film’s (apparently) low budget, but, sadly it does hurt the picture; the US base for instance is an unconvincing military style tent and a big fence in a desert landscape that’s harsh but not terribly atmospheric (actually it’s Broken Hill). On the other hand, the underground bunker is an excellent bit of low-fi art direction – all dusty corners and mysterious passages.
More important than the film’s general hand-me-down air of too little time and money and lack of verisimilitude, is Gracie’s style, which swings between the supple and graceful to TV-like hammer blows of exposition. I don’t know whether Thompson’s script ever resolved some of the more obvious plot issues but there’s no cinematic attempt to ease an audience through things that aren’t really incredible; they only seem like that because we haven’t been set-up to accept them as plausible. For instance, why isn’t there a beat to explain that it’s routine for a single guard to supervise the base? Apparently this is actually a fact from life, but it plays like a plot convenience and that's a pity.
There's a lot of invention here that doesn't get a chance to come alive. Fast moving, short and full of ideas, The Tumbler has the kind of nervy, larger than life quality of the best of ‘50s B cinema. That’s no bad thing.
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