'Brothers' Nest': Film Review | SXSW 2018

A satisfyingly black sorta-comedy.

'Kenny' director Clayton Jacobson returns with a largely housebound tale of two brothers planning the perfect murder.

The awkwardly titled Brothers' Nest sees director Clayton Jacobson follow up his sweetly comic debut feature, 2006's Kenny, with an Aussie spin on the kind of bloody farce we expect from Ben Wheatley or the Coens. Jacobson stars alongside his brother Shane (Kenny's leading man), working off a script from Jaime Browne (The Mule, which premiered at SXSW in 2014) that's set almost entirely on one secluded country property, and the filmmaker manages to sustain a short-film premise — two brothers stake out a house in the middle of nowhere, with murder on their minds — for a mostly involving 97 minutes. Family bickering escalates as the two make farcical, internet-researched preparations to knock off a family member and claim their inheritance, before the whole thing inevitably goes horribly wrong. SXSW audiences should lap it up.

An ominously atmospheric opening underscored by trembling guitar chords from composer Richard Pleasance sees the brothers cycling along a fog-thick country road at dawn. Terry (Shane) and his older brother Jeff (Clayton) cut across a paddock, make their way through a used-car graveyard and arrive at a small cottage, which the camera pushes in on with plain foreboding. They unzip their black hoodies to reveal orange jumpsuits and don hospital slippers before crossing the threshold.

Jeff scolds his brother for leaving a cigarette butt lying around, and gives him a bottle to pee in so he doesn't leave DNA on the toilet. This is the house they grew up in, Terry points out: Their DNA is everywhere. But Jeff is a stickler for the rules, even drawing up a to-do list on a clipboard ("synchronise watches/ring Mum"), and Terry is used to being told what to do. Browne's script deftly fills in the backstory, and the interplay between the brothers is only lightly comic: pedantic and quotidian but not quite broad enough to make the whole thing feel like an overlong sketch.

The house is crammed with an assortment of old radios that have been collected and restored by the brothers' stepfather, Rodger (Kim Gyngell), who was always more interested in tinkering than in his stepsons — or so Jeff says. Jeff blames Rodger for the suicide of his father, who hanged himself after the boys' mother (Lynette Curran) left. Now Mum's fading rapidly from cancer, and Rodger's set to inherit the farm. He's due at the house that day to brush and reshoe Freddie, the family horse, and Jeff plans to do him in and make it look like suicide.

The boys' preparations take the form of rehearsals as well as vacuum cleaning: "If we leave the cleaning till after the fact we're likely to miss something," explains Jeff. It all seems unnecessary to Terry, whose gormless expression stares back at him from a mass-produced painting of two cows on the wall. Pretty soon the brothers' nerves begin to fray, and the parlous state of each man's marriage and finances spills into the open. Brotherly love only goes so far, and the abusive father's legacy finally overwhelms it.

Sarah Snook (Steve Jobs) makes a late cameo as a farmer who finds more than she bargained for when she drives up to load Freddie onto a float. Her shock over the conflagration she finds makes her conversation with a weary Terry, who just wants his old horse to find a good home and peppers her with questions about its care, all the more surreal. The sound design by Emma Bortignon has a similar effect, with the tweeting of birds outside the house a starkly ordinary soundtrack to what's going on inside it.

DP Peter Falk (The Jammed) does a good job of finding fresh angles, though Clayton Jacobson and his co-editor, Sean Lander (Kenny), seem a bit punch-drunk when it comes to drone shots, which they cut to regularly. It feels like a failure of nerve, getting us out of the house but to no end. A muddy fight in the middle of a dam is interrupted by a cut to a bird's-eye view; maybe the director was trying to make some Greek-tragedy point about the gods laughing at ants, but it's deflating.

The comedy of errors that makes up the film's last third has a convincing inevitability, as the brothers pull on ski masks but quickly see their carefully constructed alibis made entirely redundant. Like Abe Forsythe's underrated Down Under (2016), this is a comedy that's blacker than pitch, and tethered enough to unexaggerated human behavior that it can really commit to the consequences of its characters' colossal stupidity. It ain't pretty.

Production companies: Jason Byrne Productions, Bison Films

Distributor: Label Distribution

Cast: Shane Jacobson, Clayton Jacobson, Kim Gyngell, Lynette Curran, Sarah Snook

Director: Clayton Jacobson

Screenwriter: Jaime Browne

Producers: Clayton Jacobson, Jason Byrne

Director of photography: Peter Falk

Production designer: Robert Perkins

Costume designer: Katie Graham

Editors: Sean Lander, Clayton Jacobson

Music: Richard Pleasance

97 minutes.