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PARK CITY – Like last year’s Sundance discovery from Australia, Animal Kingdom, debuting director Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards shapes textured relationships within a vividly drawn milieu, swapping an inner-city crime family for an Aboriginal community in the remote North-West.
Set in the spectacular Kimberley region of Western Australia and reaping huge visual benefits from its rugged locations and pristine light, Mad Bastards departs in tone from recent screen forays into this world. It has neither the composed lyricism of Samson and Delilah nor the strained ebullience of Bran Nue Dae. Instead it goes for and achieves unembellished realism, remarkably so considering most of the unselfconscious actors are untrained locals.
At its center a father and son story, the film deals in universal themes of social dysfunction and constricting codes of masculinity that could apply to any marginalized community. If the basic ingredients seem familiar, the handling of them is distinctive thanks to a gaze that’s both clear-eyed and forgiving.
Prompted partly by his imprisoned brother’s enforced separation from his son, brawling ex-con TJ (Dean Daley-Jones) leaves his messy life in the city and hitchhikes north to get to know his own 13-year-old boy, Bullet (Lucas Yeeda). But with little supervision from his hard-partying mother Nella (Ngaire Pigram), Bullet threatens to follow in his absentee dad’s footsteps.
His destructive behavior gets him sent off to a camp for delinquent boys, where an Aboriginal elder (John Watson) takes them trekking across tribal lands, teaching them to catch crocodiles and lizards for food. Aided by Allan Collins’ crisp shooting of the mud flats, mountains and scrubland, this interlude and others underline the spiritual connection to the land in Aboriginal culture.
On arrival up north, TJ finds Nella unwelcoming, and gets off on the wrong foot with her father Texas (Greg Tait). A wild-man-turned-cop determined to be a role model, Tex’s hardass persona doesn’t hide a doleful awareness of the many ways men can go wrong. His frustrating attempts to start a men’s discussion group are hilarious, with participants coming for the sausages but clamming up when asked to share problems.
The inability of men to communicate their feelings is a central issue, blocking TJ’s clumsy attempt to rekindle his relationship with Nella and causing Bullet to react with hostility to his father’s return.
Balancing toughness and tenderness with considerable maturity and restraint, Fletcher went the unorthodox route of scoring and casting the movie before it was scripted.
Having worked previously with local indigenous band the Pigram Brothers, he built the story around their music, enlisting Alan and Stephen Pigram as well as singer-songwriter Alex Lloyd.
Played on guitar, mandolin and even spoons at one point, with the musicians frequently appearing in the film, the score and songs range from rootsy blues to calypso to foot-stomping country.
That musical connective thread ties gracefully into the narrative.
In oral-story videos before the end credits the actors share their own histories – of pattern-forming juvenile detention; of alcoholism and domestic violence; of waking up in prison after a bender with no recollection of the assault charge on the rap sheet.
These and other personal accounts were sewn into the screenplay by Fletcher, with contributions from cast members Jones, Tait and Watson, whose own lives overlap with those of their screen doppelgangers. This anchors the story in authentic experience.
There’s yearning as well as stubborn emotional isolation and anger in these characters, and any harshness in the observations of this richly satisfying film invariably is balanced by warmth.
Production: Bush Turkey Films, in association with Screen Australia, Screenwest, Lotterwest, Screen NSW, Transmission Films, Mushroom Pictures and Entertainment One.
Screenplay: Brendan Fletcher, Dean Daley-Jones, Greg Tait, John Watson
Producers: David Jowsey, Alan Pigram, Stephen Pigram, Brendan Fletcher
Executive producers: Michael Gudinski, Colin McCumstie
Director of photography: Alan Collins
Production designer: Andrew McDonnell
Music: Alan Pigram, Stephen Pigram, Alex Lloyd
Editor: Claire Fletcher
Sales: E1 Entertainment
No rating, 96 minutes
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