Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Two Australian Crime Movies

Two Australian crime movies, both available on Netflix Watch Instant, both worth seeing. Interesting to watch them together because one is good and the other is excellent, and the reasons for that difference in quality are instructive.

ANIMAL KINGDOM (David Michod, 2010) is a solid, serious movie. It's made in what I'd consider to be the contemporary conventional mode for this kind of material: short scenes centered around a single impression or idea, acting done mostly in close-up, music cues over slow motion tracking shots to punctuate the big thematic moments, a dramatic arc organized around the central character's movement through a criminal milieu. I'd call it "domesticated Scorsese". And as far as it goes, it's a decent example of this kind of film: it explores a premise about familial duty, the actors are expressive, the music on the soundtrack is well-chosen. It's main fault, though, is that even though it's based on a real life Melbourne crime family, except for a few details it feels like it could take place anywhere. And that "could take place anywhere" feeling exists on both a macro level - it could be set in L.A. or Hong Kong without changing much of anything - and the micro level - there's nothing particularly interesting done with any of the locations in the movie: you could mix up the houses the different characters live in and it'd be the same movie.

In some ways, THE SQUARE (Nash Edgerton, 2008) is more conventional: it has a plot right out of a 40's film noir (adulterous couple plot to steal money from the cheating woman's shady husband) and it plays out following all the rules of traditional Hollywood storytelling. But in today's context, that traditionalism seems, if not radical, than at least strikingly unconventional. At this point, it's probably meaningless to praise a movie for its great use of space or its sense of geography - at least it's meaningless without going into the details of how it uses space or what gives it such a good sense of geography. In the case of THE SQUARE, it's that all the scenes are worked out in ways depend on the specifics of the places they're set in. There's a sequence that takes place at a community picnic that involves the adulterers trying to signal to each other across a crowd without their spouses catching on: the staging and cutting emphasizes the attempt to have a private communication in a public space. The layout of the houses and apartments the characters live in plays a part in the unfolding of the action (i.e., the scene where the stash of money is discovered). On a larger scale, the geography matters, too: there's a river that runs through the town that plays a logistical role in the plot and a thematic role in the story. Ultimately, it was that kind of attention to detail that made the experience of watching THE SQUARE so interesting on a moment-to-moment level. Instead of each shot equaling one idea (as in ANIMAL KINGDOM), the complexities and nuances of THE SQUARE emerge detail-by-detail as the action unfolds. It's the difference between having a story told to you and watching a movie.