A happy, unsuspecting couple, Max (Dan Wyllie) and Therese (Bojana Novakovic), buy a house in what appears to be a quiet, friendly neighbourhood. Settling in well, they make friends with a nice family on one side and soon meet another more interesting family on the other side. But interesting soon becomes loud, and loud soon becomes intolerable. When the intolerable becomes violent and the police are powerless, Max and Therese attempt to take matters into their own hands.

Suburban black comedy lacks reals laughs.

Rolf de Heer’s new feature, which he wrote and directed, has a ticklish idea at the centre of its plot, a kind of comedy of manners, mostly of the very bad, irritating kind.

The dialogue has no snap, punch or attack; it’s blandly functional, plot-driven chat

A nice middle-class couple Max (Dan Wyllie) and Therese (Bojana Novakovic) have just purchased a new home, a cosy bungalow in a low key but pleasant Adelaide neighbourhood. Pretty quickly it appears they have made a terrible mistake. On one side, their neighbours consist of a young family, with a playful kid, a projection of their own hopes and ambitions. It’s the other side that’s the problem. This is a ramshackle, near derelict, house that is more than just an eyesore; for Max and Therese, it’s despoiling their very existence.

During the day, it seems a playground for 'heavy’ types, the kind of men who sport grotesque haircuts, wear fierce looking t-shirts and talk with a swagger, and play bad rap music at paint-scrapping volume (while trying to learn the lyrics). At night, the place plays host to parties that rage until dawn. It is the home of the King (Gary Waddell).

A pensioner with a cracked plea in his voice and a halting arthritic gait to his walk, the King has the desperate air of a man who’s done too much time in dark places, both figuratively and literally. Since prison and poverty seem to cling to the King like a noxious odor, Max and Therese don’t quite know whether to be revolted or sympathetic, scared or contemptuous. Confounding their sympathies further is the fact that the King is a local drug dealer and the noisy troublemakers are amongst his best clients; the King maintains it’s he who is the victim in this mess but he can do nothing.

The noisy mess next door drives the couple nuts with sleepless nights, then a couple of break-ins. They get scared. Max and Therese resort to the middle-class go-to solutions of law and order. The cops can do nothing but look unhappy in the face of the issue; there’s no legislation that stops people from acting like arseholes"¦

Max and Therese get desperate; they begin to spy, then plot, in order to rid themselves of their nuisance neighbours. By movie’s end, they have violated all their own scruples and turned themselves into cunning and shrewd criminals. And enjoy it, too.

The tone is comic, but, and this issue is insurmountable, the film just isn’t funny. The dialogue has no snap, punch or attack; it’s blandly functional, plot-driven chat, an almost but not quite one-liner free-zone. De Heer hasn’t shaped his material and setting so he can spring visual jokes. Cinematographer Ian Jones, shooting in wide frames and, at times, strange angles in a soft natural kind of light, gives the film, for much of it short run time, an austere, ultra-serious art film look. It’s only in the film’s last third that de Heer seems to inject some visual fun when Wylie and Novakovic don their 'criminal gear’ – khaki coats and woolen hats – so they don’t look ready for tough action, but geared up for a ski holiday!

I think part of the film’s flatness can be attributed to the acting, or rather the way de Heer has directed the performers. Wylie and Novakovic, who are terrific actors, don’t seem to be playing comedy (black or any other kind); their characters have the airless, obviousness favoured by Australian networks in their arch dramedies. (Though, towards the end, Novakovic’s nastiness can be amusing.) In their roles, Luke Ford and Anthony Hayes can’t do much either.

The King is Dead! isn’t really sharp or tough-minded in any lofty way; indeed, as a joke about how the 'civilising’ forces of law and order are no threat to our own primitive impulses, it seems out of touch and old fashioned. Why does it take so long for Max and Therese to arrive at a 'lawless’ solution? Their faith in institutions seems to belong to a more innocent time.

Still, most of the gags revolve around the 'social contract’, those comforting everyday pleasantries of politeness and give-and-take that reassure us that we are decent and caring. And De Heer delights in sending up the self-congratulation of Max and Therese’s gutless behaviour (and contrasting it with the intractable life and death, debt and pay-off dealing of the criminals.) One of the film’s only really funny jokes is when the couple refuses to acknowledge a friendly 'hello’ wave from one of their possibly psychopathic neighbours. Since de Heer is as heavy-handed a satirist as he is a flat-footed comic, there’s no guessing which code of behavior has the ultimate moral victory here.

The film’s one major highlight is Gary Waddell, who can make even de Heer’s tired talk sound like it has a funny sting. His King has a sturdy comic grip from his first beat and never lets up. It’s a piece of acting so good you spend the movie waiting for him to turn up a lot more often than he does.

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1 hour 42 min
In Cinemas 12 July 2012,