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Australian Contemporary Drama: Empathy in brutality

Ali Schnabel

“I don’t think there are many people that would consider a murderer a legitimate choice for a protagonist.” Grant Scicluna, writer and director of Downriver

Premiering at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival is Grant Scicluna’s Downriver, a mystery-thriller that follows James, recently released from prison and on a mission to find the missing body of the boy he murdered when he was only a child himself. The film shares a similarly gritty feel with some of the most critically acclaimed contemporary Australian drama features: Animal Kingdom, Samson & Delilah, The Boys and Snowtown are also notably bleak, depicting difficult topics and refusing to shy away from brutality.

Downriver's most striking feature is its characters. A magnetic Reef Ireland plays tense and meditative protagonist James who, despite his past, has the audience silently rooting for him. Even the film’s most morally bereft characters (like sadistic antagonist Anthony, portrayed by Tom Green) manage to elicit a sense of empathy from the audience, despite regularly showing us the most unpalatable versions of themselves. According to Scicluna, this is something he can’t resist in his writing. “I just don’t like everyone to be so clean cut,” he says. “I actually think that people are complicated in real life, and so characters should have a chance to show that. Because no bad character knows that they’re bad – they just have a different goal.”

In Downriver, the protagonist’s guilt is never called into question: James is a murderer, and his desire for penance doesn’t annul his past actions. For Scicluna, this moral ambiguity is important: “I don’t know if my film would ever be made in America – mainly due to the choice of protagonist. Perhaps Americans might make a film about Kerry Fox’s character… I guess, to tell the story of a perpetrator, that is quite unique. I certainly think films in the last decade that have exploded do tend to be films that are prepared to go on the journey of the dark drama – I think there is something inherently Australian about that.”

British–American production We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) is a good example of focus shifting onto more sympathetic characters. It opts to tell the story of a school shooter’s mother while largely omitting her child’s involvement. Yet in Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011), we are put in close proximity with the revolting yet scarily charismatic John Bunting; films like it and Rowan Wood’s The Boys (1998) explore murky, ugly stories as well as traditionally unpalatable characters.

Hollywood portrayals of difficult characters, such as the 2003 dramatisation of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins’s Monster, can suffer from a heavy reliance on macabre depictions of the characters’ formative traumas. These seem to be presented as an afterthought, acting as an excuse for graphic content. In Australian films like Downriver, these traumas are implicit, and don’t exist solely in a distilled moment on the screen. For Scicluna and other writers, there is a desire to create complex characters without resorting solely to brutal reveals. Certainly, there is brutality in Australian films, but they serve to speak to the commonplace nature of violence in the real world. The scene in Snowtown where Jamie is raped by Troy isn’t built up in a way that nudges the audience and says that it is a significant trauma scene. In Snowtown’s world, this is just something that happens, along with the plethora of other brutalities; the characters occupy a space similar to the one Scicluna wrote in Downriver. “I like to write characters and have stories [that] feel like they have existed before, and will exist after the film.” In these films, awful things have already happened, and will continue to happen after we leave. Like the way we see Josh for the first time in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), watching Deal or No Deal next to his mother’s dead body – these awful traumas are just part of the bleak world these characters inhabit.

Thanks in part to Ozploitation, Australian accents seem inextricably tied to humour, sarcasm and ingenuous (or otherwise) uses of the word ‘mate’. But when the accents frame more sinister or dramatic content – such as the diatribes of John Bunting in Snowtown, or Senior Sergeant Leckie’s titular speech in Animal Kingdom – the contrast between the historically funny accent and the emotional weight of the dialogue is as jarring as it is distinct. This is especially evident in Wolf Creek (2005), where the audience is subjected to the dissonance of Mick Taylor’s extreme sadism and his camp Aussie humour.

Informed by Scicluna’s experience of growing up in a semi-rural area near the Blue Mountains, the dialogue of Downriver is distinctly Australian: wry, to the point and peppered with lots of casual swears, without being camp or ocker. When the tension ramps up, the drawl falls away – words are spat and given a serious weight that might seem routine when delivered by the American accents we have become so desensitised to.

A discussion of brutality in Australian cinema raises the question: why are we even drawn to these stories? Scicluna theorises that it could stem from an obsession with criminality, a curiosity linked to the knowledge of our country’s history. On a more nuanced level, these films are about depicting compelling individuals through an unusual or challenging framework. Utilising brutality, difficult themes are blended with realistic characters that feel complete, due in part to the implicit nature of their suffering. It’s curious to think that our native accent could be jarring, but in a context that traditionally features the routine American drawls, it can be, especially when it frames content that is so unexpected.

Films such as Downriver may be challenging and brutal, but they represent a distinct voice and approach to character development and narrative that has the capacity to develop into a uniquely Australian entity.

Read all of our 2015 Critics Campus features