This tense psychological thriller tells the story of a woman unable to conceive a child with her husband, despite years of trying. In a desperate and drunken mistake, she sleeps with a young stranger. Determined to prove his paternity, his intentions soon become terrifyingly psychotic and the young woman finds herself at the centre of a psychological and brutally physical battle which she must win if she is to survive and have the family she longs for.
Spinning Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction on the gender axis and milking maximum suspense from its isolated Australian setting, Rupert Glasson’s Coffin Rock is a well-crafted thriller that doesn’t quite stick to its creative guns from beginning to end. The impact overall, however, is of an Australian film of considerable skill and international potential.
Lifted by some stellar acting from lead Lisa Chappell and a seething, no-holds-barred baddie in Sam Parsonson’s Evan, the film’s best moments convey the desperation Chappell’s Jess feels when an irreversible act of irresponsibility begins to unravel her quiet life. The conventional genre moments in the melodrama’s final third don’t quite match the edginess of the creepy first and second acts.
Jess (Chappell) seems out of place in the small South Australian fishing village of Coffin Rock. She lives there with her husband Rob, a hard-working everyman (the fine Robert Taylor). Chappell’s characterisation and natural effervescence give Jess a luminosity that makes her a reluctant centre of attention in the otherwise drab community – she must deal with the local lads' innuendo with good humour, though the underlying sexual tension in the increasingly aggressive taunts infuse the film with chilling effectiveness.
There is a thin crack in the happy facade Rob and Jess share - they are desperate to start a family and must visit a big-city IVF clinic for assistance. It is here that Parsonson’s Evan, an Irish traveller (rather implausibly) employed as the clinic's receptionist, becomes fixated upon Jess and, after accessing the couple’s records, makes a bee-line for their grey, windswept hometown with an eye towards imposing himself upon their lives.
As anticipation grows to unease between Jess and Rob in the wait for the fertility test results, Jess drinks away some of her anxiety at the local pub, and is stalked by Evan in some truly unsettling scenes of predatory manipulation. The next morning, Jess is filled with regret and terrified that her life will implode if word of her indiscretion gets out. She confronts Evan, and he doesn't take the rejection very well.
From this point the recognisable elements of the small-town psycho thriller start to come into play and, while entirely enjoyable within the context of the story, they aren’t as surprising as one might have hoped: A menacing late-night visit by Evan; the despatching of sundry disposable characters (whose fates are signposted from the start); the inevitable confrontation between Rob and Evan; the bloody ending – they'er all well-shot and effective, but just a little pat.
Glasson’s debut feature, Coffin Rock offers up exemplary work by all involved, both in front of and behind the camera. She hasn't appeared in a feature film since the Peter Jackson-produced New Zealand oddity Jack Brown Genius in 1994, but Chappell is excellent as Jess, a role that requires her to play sweet, sexy, scared and resilient. Having spent 74 episodes on horseback as Claire in McLeods Daughters, the strong physicality she brings to the role is no surprise, but the courage with which she commits to some gruelling scenes demonstrate extreme dedication to the part. Based on Coffin Rock, Chappell has a major future as a big-screen star.
Sam Parsonson should also be credited with going to extremes as Evan, one of the most convincing psychotics the Oz industry has offered up in a long time. The actor's use of his own raffish Irish charm and slight build to underplay the physical menace Evan is capable of is skilful screen acting. When revealed, there is an annoying obviousness to Evan’s psychological disorder but Parsonson strives to make us believe, which he does convincingly enough.
Veteran Australian character actors Taylor, Terry Camilleri and Geoff Morrell bring gravitas to their parts; Jodie Dry and newcomer Joseph Del Re do what they can with characters more important to plot progression.
Cinematographer David Foreman (ACS) provides world class images of the bleak coastal setting. Under director Glasson, who announces himself a skilful storyteller with a keen eye for mood and suspense, the film’s technical aspects are superbly-realised.
Exuding the isolated rural menace so effectively evoked in Colin Eggleston’s forgotten Australian thriller Long Weekend (1978), Coffin Rock is most enjoyable as a terrifically commercial thriller with an all-too-rare female lead character of refreshing complexity. If it falls back on the clichés of the genre occasionally, it has achieved enough audience goodwill to be a thoroughly satisfying white-knuckler.