Sydney Film Fest: The Rover and Calvary

It's that time of year again! The Sydney Film Festival may not exactly pose a challenge to Cannes (yet) for global cinema supremacy, but it is one of Australia's best smorgasbords of anticipated films from around with world, with a stellar line-up of "must-see" and "well that could be interesting" screenings in 2014. I'm kicking off my round of short reviews from the Fest with two anticipated (not to mention bleak and bloody) 2nd features; Calvary and home-grown The Rover

Brendan Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd in 'Calvary'. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Brendan Gleeson and Chris O'Dowd in 'Calvary'. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Calvary (2014) Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and Brendan Gleeson, fresh off their collaboration in The Guard, re-team for this bleak comedy about a good priest with a wayward flock, looking down the barrel at death by the hands of his own community. The film opens in the confessional, where an unseen but familiar voice pledges to kill Father James Lavelle in one week. There is no shortage of suspects in the pool of grotesques that people the priest’s small seaside parish (played by a swarm of familiar faces, including Chris O’Dowd, Dylan Moran and Aidan Gillen still flexing his Littlefinger drawl). The ensuing film unfolds largely as a series of vignettes, as Father Lavelle encounters the townsfolk by their ones and twos and attempts to connect with his flailing daughter, a memory of life before he donned the cassock.

The film’s virtues coalesce in Gleeson’s charismatic Father Lavelle, a deftly sketched character enriched by a performance borne with a weight that suggests untold oceans of experience behind those sinking eyes. Sadly, the community he serves struggles to amass the depth of a wading pool. Early encounters with the townsfolk are entertaining, even outright hilarious (as befits the cast and a pointed script) but as the film presses on and attempts to heighten its emotional stakes, I was disappointed to find the supporting cast never escape their stock archetypes: the atheist doctor, the soulless capitalist, the serial adulterer, the repressed young miscreant. Uncharitably, one might class them as motley caricatures of the church’s perceived enemies - a menagerie of straw men to contrast with Father Lavelle’s hard-fought piety.

While McDonagh lionizes his beleaguered protagonist, he seems to share precious little of his faith. The film elides and scorns the grievances that have turned people against the Church (the undercooked accounting of the suffering of abuse victims feels particularly tone-deaf in Australia post-Royal Commission), yet offers little belief that the church can offer reconciliation, nor fill the spiritual void left in its wake. The suffering of the good priest is luxuriated in, in a manner that suggests less the road to salvation than a grubby nihilism. Although the portentous cutaways to mountains and intrusive score urge solemnity, this bleak vision is most successful when mined for bitter laughs. Were the world around Gleeson’s Father even half as well drawn as its lead character, perhaps McDonagh could have passed through the eye of the needle. As it stands, the lurches in tone betray a promising film and a tremendous performance.

Guy Pearce in 'The Rover'. Courtesy of Roadshow Films.

Guy Pearce in 'The Rover'. Courtesy of Roadshow Films.

The Rover (2014) Directed by David Michod, Written by David Michod and Joel Edgerton

Next up, another anticipated sophomore effort; the post-apocalyptic Australian road trip The Rover, from writer/director David Michod, responsible for the grim yet sublime Animal Kingdom. The plot is simple – hoodlums in the desert steal the titular Rover’s car, and he pursues them, aided by the abandoned younger brother of one of the gang-members (Robert Pattinson).

The Australian outback, a vast expanse seemingly without limit or end, delineated by scattered settlements and low outcrops of red rock, has long been home to stories set after civilization’s fall. The post-apocalyptic sub-genre has been intermittently in vogue since Mad Max, though the stark cruelty of the landscape has lent a grim ethos and aesthetic to many of our great films, from Jimmy Blacksmith to The Proposition. This means The Rover comes on the back of a strong tradition – but also that its premise has been extensively mined. And sadly Michod seems to have little new to say, nor even a new way to say it.

Michod and cinematographer Natasha Baier conjure a bleak world cast in long shadows and harsh, unforgiving natural light, a space often punctuated with bursts of casual violence. In the opening sequences the contrasts are shocking, even grotesquely beautiful, but with little plot and taciturn characters the effected is quickly dulled. Even a titanic performance by Guy Pearce, a hollowed simulacrum of a man parsed out to us in tiny portions, cannot liven the depressing monotony of the violence and depravity. So grim is the experience that I rejoiced at the late, jarring intrusion of pop song ‘Pretty Girl Rock’ on the soundtrack. Long parched, I drank deep from the bizarre digression, finally electrified by the unexpected. By suggesting the excesses and joys of a world long gone, finally dissolving into Robert Pattinson’s faltering falsetto, it was more unsettling than an hour of muck and grime.

Both leads do good work, but Pattinson in particular is left unmoored by a script that neglects to ground the traumatized tics of his performance in any kind of reality. More compelling stories are implied by characters on the margins of the narrative; the doctor and her guardian tending dogs on a lonely farmstead, the malformed communities of outcasts blasting Chinese rock songs by the desert crossroads, the small cadre of soldiers operating hundreds of kilometers from the last standing authorities in Sydney. The lonely, silent angel of death embodied by the Rover is an archetype always likely to have clout – but one wishes he carried slung over his shoulder a new idea rather than a repackaging of such simple nihilism.

Coming up: Linklater's 12-year opus, winners from Cannes and Berlin, and a dose of working class solidarity.