A young construction worker rams into the back of his boss’s Jaguar in a fit of anger at being sacked. Rather than fronting court, he’s given the chance to explain his actions in a community conference.

A welcome return home for Michael Rymer.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Michael Rymer’s Face to Face reminds us what a fine director he was when he swept the AFI’s in 1995 with his debut film, Angel Baby.

The director has finally returned to the big screen after a decade of self-imposed exile (stemming from his tortuous Queen of the Damned experience), which he spent classing up science fiction shows in the US (Battlestar Galactica; FlashForward). Rymer combines crisp, fluid camerawork with a flowing, penetrative script that he adapted from David Williamson’s play. The result is a small-scale character-driven work that stands tall, gliding smoothly between introspective stillness and dramatic fireworks.

The construct is effectively simple: a conflict resolution session scrutinises the lives and relationships of several employees of a medium-sized industrial scaffolding business, all of whom may have played a part in a violent encounter that threatens to send one of them to gaol. Overseen by conflict counsellor Jack (strongly brought to life by Matthew Newton in a role full of bitter irony, given his well-publicised real-life issues), the session has been called to determine why young, simple-minded firebrand Wayne (a boisterous Luke Ford) attacked the owner of the business, Greg Baldoni (Vince Colosimo). Also present is Greg’s wife Claire (Sigrid Thornton), Wayne’s mum Maureen (Lauren Clair),childhood friend Barry (Josh Saks), and several of Greg’s employees, like sexy secretary Julie (Laura Gordon), middle-eastern muscle Hakim (Robert Rabiah), downtrodden foreman Richard (Chris Connelly) and shy Asian bookkeeper Therese (Ra Chapman).

Each character is introduced as a crudely drawn stereotype. (Therese sits with her head bowed, barely whispering when forced to speak; Hakim’s olive, chiselled arms are revealed in a sleeveless shirt, his angular face made fierce by a thick goatee; Julie is all hair and cleavage.) Rymer’s aim is to break down the entrenched notions each character’s appearance inspires, however shamefully, in the audience.

As the narrative becomes increasingly complex, the well-staged use of flashbacks allows for a recounting of key events in the days leading up to the assault, through which we learn that Greg’s workplace is a cauldron of bullying, racism, infidelity and mismanagement. Secondly, the device serves to expand the restrictive conventions of the work’s theatrical roots and Rymer, whose original words for these sequences integrate seamlessly with Williamson’s text, oversees these functional interludes with great skill.

Williamson’s penchant for the feelgood finale pushes the subversive reversal of each character’s defining traits to the nth degree; Rymer strives for an upbeat vibe in the film’s last 10 minutes that unnecessarily stretches the credibility and integrity of his characters. Some might feel reality left the building earlier on – at a key juncture in the drama, some frank sexual admissions turns the drama into a rather twee man vs. woman standoff. (The sequence is not helped by Thornton’s wide-eyed histrionics; unusually, she is the weak link in an otherwise fine cast.)

That said, the strengths of Face to Face far outweigh its shortcomings. A smart blend of social satire and moral think piece, it’s resonant Australian movie-making best suited to a mature audience. Rymer’s confident execution indicates the sabbatical he enjoyed in the Hollywood trenches has served his instincts well. His return to the domestic film landscape makes one hope he does not disappear again anytime soon.