Monday, April 10, 2017

The Usual Australian Suspects

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 18
Craig Monahan (writer/director), The Interview

When a police raid busts down Eddie Rodney Fleming’s (Hugo Weaving) door and arrests him for a stolen car, Fleming’s first reaction is to piss himself. Hardly the reaction of a street-hardened car thief. Also hardly the reaction, as the story unfolds, of a serial killer stalking the Australian outback, a predator stalking young students for the thrill of sport. But he may not be that either, as an excessively aggressive interrogator starts pulling contradictory stories loose.

Despite a brief flirtation with international fame following 1994’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Weaving had essentially returned to anonymity outside Australia by this movie’s release. His debut as a staple of high-dollar American science fiction wouldn’t come until the next year, with The Matrix. This relative obscurity limited Weaving to smaller paychecks, but it permitted him artistic liberty to pursue intellectually adventurous art-house fare like this.

Most of this movie takes place within the confines of one urban police station, mainly a single interview room. It has, somewhat, the conventions of a single-set play, with dialog-driven scenes, revelations driven primarily by claustrophobia, and no clear act divisions. The aptly named Detective Sergeant Steele (Tony Martin) grills Fleming for hours, demanding information on crimes so grisly, Fleming visibly shrinks when asked about them. Steele rains down like God’s own vengeance.

Tony Martin (top, armed) arrests Hugo
Weaving in The Interview
Most of the movie turns on two questions: did he or didn’t he? And, do the ends justify the means? Fleming engages in surprisingly strategic horse-trades around his confessions. In exchange for a hot meal and dry shorts, he begins spilling details about crimes so gruesome that the tables turn, and Steele flees the room to regain his composure. But when Steele’s superiors ask follow-ups, Fleming insists his confessions were lies, calculated to end the humiliating interview.

Behind Fleming’s ambiguity, lies Steele’s. Fairly early on, as Steele sounds out Fleming, we discover somebody else is observing this interview. Apparently, Steele has a history of ethics violations, which his direct supervisors have overlooked because he gets results. But we watch Steele feed Fleming information, ask questions off the record, and directly threaten his suspect, all of which directly contravene Australian justice procedures. Steele is as rotten as the criminals he busts.

Writer-director Craig Monahan unabashedly plays with audiences’ loyalties. Fleming comes across initially as a shapeless nebbish: unemployed, divorced, living in a mold-stained flat with stacks of magazines and a pathetic goldfish. We wonder why Steele persecutes this poor sap so mercilessly. But Fleming’s confessions are too specific and detailed to have been invented spontaneously. Or are they? Even Steele realizes they’re contradictory and coincidence-driven. Who’s fooling who?

(An unused alternate ending, available on the DVD, sadly resolves this ambiguity. Skip it if you can.)

This movie is, essentially, an ongoing power struggle. DS Steele has the power to threaten, cajole, and coerce Fleming, confident he has the entire Australian justice system behind him. Falsely confident, as it happens. Fleming has only his stories to assuage the hot-tempered detective, but his words giveth, and his words taketh away. As Steele’s administrative support dwindles, Fleming manages to save his hide by playing both sides against one another.

Tony Martin, as Steele, is almost completely unknown outside Australia. He’s mainly done television and theatre at home, and hasn’t cultivated Weaving’s international audience base. That actually helps him with global audiences here: we have no baggage in seeing his performance. At times, he resembles Tim Roth or Harvey Keitel, actors whose characters are known for disregarding ethical norms in pursuit of their goals. Martin, as Steele, proves you can be right and still be wrong.

Monahan’s movie asks its audiences difficult questions about moral authority. Are people in power ever justified in lying to citizens who can’t fight back? Is it right to hang a suspect with rope he spun himself? When we have only verbal testimony, how can we be sure objective reality even exists? More important, this movie avoids the temptation to offer elementary solutions to these puzzles. To watch this film is to buy into its invitation to doubt the nature of reality.

This isn’t a crime movie. There’s no physical violence, no gunplay, no hard-bitten detective antics. Half police procedural, half psychological thriller, this movie forces audiences to adjust their rhythms to the pace presented, almost like a religious experience. Watching the movie, we, like Fleming, find ourselves transported to a world where words like “truth” and “time” have little meaning. And we return to our world changed by the experience.

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