The characters may be mostly thick, but the film is not.
Written and directed by Abe Forsyth
94 minutes, rated MA 15+
Once upon a time, and for a short time, there was a strand of Australian film-making that came with a deliberately bad attitude. Most big Australian films of the late 1970’s were costume dramas projecting a new self-confidence, an idea that our culture had grown up. We were not the land of Bazza McKenzie any more; we were My Brilliant Career and Storm Boy and Caddie. A few larrikin independents disagreed.
The key film of this in-your-face and up-your-bum style was George Miller’s Mad Max, but there were others: Pure Shit, by Bert Deling, detailing inner-city drug cultures; Going Down, by Haydn Keenan, about being young and adventurous in Sydney in the early 1980’s. One of the fundamentals of these films was that we weren’t alright, Jack; that Australian society was dysfunctional, full of violence, fear, hypocrisy and race hatred. Naturally, films that said so had problems finding a receptive public – even if they could find a receptive theatre.
Thirty years later, it’s easier to see what we lost by not supporting our mavericks. Australian cinema became less critical, less satirical, less relevant. Some of the anger went into television, mainly in migrant-based comedy. The attitude largely disappeared from the big screens – which is why it is a pleasure to welcome Down Under, written and directed by the young and talented Abe Forsyth, who wasn’t born when most of the above happened.
Down Under is an Australian comedy worth the name. It will upset lots of people, which is good. That’s what art should do. What I liked most is that it is fearless, in a way we used to be in our cinema. What do I mean? Setting your film in the aftermath of the Cronulla riots of 2006 takes some nerve. Pitching it as the story of two gangs from opposite camps cruising the streets looking for heads to bash takes more. Making it funny piles on the degree of difficulty but Forsyth brings it off. The film is laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally but realistically violent, and viciously honest about its real subject – the stupidity of racism. First lesson of comedy club – make the characters credible and recognisable, even if they’re exaggerated for comedy.
So on one side, we have Nick from Lakemba (Rahel Romahn, brilliant) bullying his friends Hassim (Lincoln Younes) and D-Mac (Fayssal Bazzi) to take up arms, in the aftermath of the first clashes on the beaches. It’s your duty to defend your culture, he tells them, although in plainer language. Uncle Ibrahim (Michael Denkha), visiting from the old country, is happy to join in. Nick sells drugs, but he has his priorities as a not-very-good Muslim sorted out.
On the other side, we have hot-headed bogan family man Jason (Damon Herriman) – sleeveless, brainless and hopeless. He sees beating up ‘Lebs’ as his patriotic duty. He bullies his friend, the pungently-named Shit-Stick (Alexander England) to join the hunt, although Mr Stick would prefer to bong-on and get along. There’s also cousin Evan, who has Down’s Syndrome (Chris Bunton) and functions as a kind of wise fool, and Ditch (Justin Rosniak), a twit in head bandages, itching for a fight.
Forsyth has said the idea came after he saw Four Lions, an English satire from 2010 about young incompetent home-grown jihadists. That film was just as dark, but I liked the way Down Under finds the humanity in each of its characters, even as they do stupid, violent things to each other.
The film has some old-time 70’s film virtues as well – vapid young men careering around in cars, looking for excitement. The real footage of what happened in 2006 casts a sobering pall over the dumb fun, but Forsyth makes good use of the comedic potential of having two or three revved-up cars with huge banks of lights – interior and exterior – cruising the deserted streets, looking for ‘payback’.
The characters may be mostly thick, but the film is not. Forsyth’s unflinching finale captures the dumb rage unleashed by those riots. The film is a foul-mouthed blast of fresh air.