Set in the mid-1970s, Cut Snake tells the story of twenty-something Sparra Farrell (Alex Russell), a very private man who is trying to start a new life in Melbourne. He has found honest work and becomes engaged to the beautiful Paula (Jessica De Gouw). But his past catches up with him and threatens his new life when the charismatic Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton) tracks him down. Sparra finds himself sucked back into a world that he thought he had left behind.
“To work out; — The sexual bias in literary criticism. What sort of person would the critic prefer to sleep with, in fact.” – E. M. Forster in his diary, 25 October, 1910
With Cut Snake, director Tony Ayres and scriptwriter Blake Ayshford tap into the root of Australia’s obsession with murderous petty criminals. The film attempts to hook the wide audience enjoyed by Animal Kingdom, Underbelly and Chopper. And if at the beginning Cut Snake seems coy – surely that’s just part of the giggle for wannabe tough guys who’ve never taken a fist to the face and an acknowledgement of masculinity as a form of theatre.
Set in 1974, the film’s opening establishes that recently released prisoner Jim (Sullivan Stapleton) is so determined to find a former criminal associate that he travels from Sydney to Melbourne to track him down. Jim’s quarry, Merv (Alex Russell), is boyish but handsome, and is just about to get married to Paula (Jessica De Gouw), an attractive young woman from a well-to-do family. The couple have their eyes set on domestic bliss and a semi-rural life together on the outskirts of Melbourne, complete with a home loan and veggie patch. When Jim arrives and insinuates himself as a houseguest, the movie feels like it’ll be the case of a clean-cut hero who fears being dragged back into mayhem by his shady past. Merv has a loveable Ashton Kutcher look, but behind those pouting lips there’s a secret he’d prefer was kept under wraps. Cut Snake kicks into gear when it lays bare what most other gangster films prefer to leave as subtextsThe film’s dalliances with domestic violence and sexual identity seem to be too powerful for Ayres and Ayshford to contain or control that dominate our screens.
It’s an audacious punt and cinematically overdue, given how much macho posturing movies subject audiences to. Jim and Merv were involved with each other in prison and at least one of them is still in love – and the violence they perpetrate is a form of foreplay for their mutual sexual satisfaction. Suddenly, Paula is no longer the prize the men will clash over, but the very thing that is keeping the blokes apart. Slyly, the title Cut Snake twists its standard colloquial usage suggesting insanity to become a vivid euphemism for a spurned lover.
'Cut Snake kicks into gear when it lays bare what most other gangster films prefer to leave as subtext: the homoerotic bond between all these bad boys that dominate our screens.'
Hinting at the possibility that Paula will be left behind as the gay romance rekindles, Merv and Jim revert to the monikers they used in prison. Jim becomes Pommie (a puzzling name for a non-Englishman; possibly an ironic reference to Jim’s unrefined manner). Merv becomes the bird-like Sparra (“sparrow”) and spawns tattoos which earlier had been kept from the audience’s view. Sparra’s ability to choose his life – including his sexuality – is at stake, and in 1974, that was a bigger choice than it is now. Most people argue that homosexuality vs. heterosexuality is not a choice. And maybe it’s not. But certainly Sparra feels that he has to leave his gay life behind if he wants to live a peaceful life.
Just before Sparra and Pommy’s passion is unleashed, a key scene demonstrates the bloodlust that helped bond them for four years in prison. Some of this violence gives Cut Snake a hypnotic quality as it swings between dream and nightmare, but this violence is also the place where the film starts to trip up. Oddly, Sparra’s violent side has apparently never manifested in his relationship with Paula. Contrary to the way psychological repression works, by cutting himself off from his homosexuality, Sparra has also managed to separate himself from the violence (domestic and criminal) that got him into prison in the first place. And if the violence is merely an artistic metaphor for the schism in Sparra’s sexual identity, what is one to make of the point where Pommy says to Sparra as the pair wrestle in the debris of the artificially constructed domestic bliss: “Do you want to be a liar all your life?” Even if truth is supposed to be justifiable compensation for the violence wreaked by Pommie, what would any emotionally healthy person’s response be? Is Cut Snake really an ode to the attraction of violent relationships?
Via its violent and awkwardly written middle section, the film leaves behind its opening gambit of a Tarantino vibe to finish with a richer, more poetic Warner Brothers style that echoes the Humphrey Bogart of High Sierra, the James Cagney of Public Enemy and the motto of Gilda: “hate is a very exciting emotion”. Reflecting that Hollywood-style mindset, Melbourne’s slate-paved, inner city appears as anonymous as a Warner Brothers backlot.
'The film’s dalliances with domestic violence and sexual identity seem to be too powerful to contain or control.'
Even during these stylistic nods, the film keeps going way over the top to do itself irreparable damage. One is a cartoonish, demonic reference that resembles something from Planes, Trains and Automobiles at a time when the film truly needs to be keeping its gravitas. Many similar missteps (though this moment is the worst offender) undermine Cut Snake. By the time the film attempts to sign off as a Douglas Sirk-style tragedy with Nina Simone singing 'Wild is the Wind', the boundaries have been pushed too far. By this finale, Cut Snake – nods to Warner Brothers and all – has fallen into self-parody. Like most forms of movie campness – gay or straight – it's a cover for not daring to face the depth without leaving humour as an emergency exit. If the filmmakers had been willing to honour the characters' romance throughout Cut Snake, the intended (I presume) sense of tragedy may have prevailed. The film’s dalliances with domestic violence and sexual identity seem to be too powerful for Ayres and Ayshford to contain or control even as they created some fascinating and compelling moments in their film.
Cut Snake will probably become an interesting footnote to all these petty crims who proliferate in Australian films (I can already hear academics sharpening their pencils), but once word gets out on this film, it’s unlikely to entice the wider mainstream audience who might normally be attracted to such macho gangsters. That is, unless their own latent homosexuality won’t let them stay away.