Mill Valley Film Festival

MILL VALLEY, California -- First time writer/director Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan's debut feature "Cactus," a taut kidnapping drama/road movie, opens explosively with a violent struggle. Fueled by Nerida Tyson-Chew's propulsive score, the movie sustains its mystery and tension for at least the first hour. Competently made and well shot in the Australian outback, with the dust and bleakness that parched landscape implies, the film eventually runs out steam and comes to an unsatisfying conclusion.

Despite receiving positive critical notices in Australia, "Cactus" -- Aussie slang for up the creek without a paddle -- came and went in theaters in a flash. For U.S. audiences, the best chance to catch it outside of a festival screening will be on DVD or cable.

Currican and husband/cinematographer, Florian Emmerich, cut their teeth as camera operators on big budget features. Working leaner and meaner here, Currican frames the story as a down and dirty, dark night of the soul for two desperate men, victim and captor -- the odd couple trapped together at the center of the action. It may not be the most original set-up but it's handled effectively.

When we meet Eli (David Lyons), a professional gambler whose luck apparently has run out, he's bound and gagged in the back seat of a beaten-up Ford driven by his laconic abductor, John (a solid Travis McMahon). Eli, like the audience, doesn't know why he has been abducted, the identity of the heavies who ordered the kidnapping or where he's being taken. The film is at its best when cloaked in mystery; it's the ride not the destination that counts.

Initially, we identify with Eli but Curracan does a skillful job of turning the tables on our sympathies. John, motivated by family tragedy to acquire quick cash, is decent and humane under the circumstances, while Eli, after his gag is removed, comes across as obnoxious and arrogant. The kidnapping is meticulously thought out but the plan goes awry, as best laid plans often do in genre movies, and the uneasy bond two men supposedly forge is as implausible as it sounds. This leads to a let down at the end. Bryan Brown, doubling as executive producer, plays a crafty backwoods cop who helps foil the plot.

Australian Film Commission, New South Wales Film and Television Office, Open Space Films, New Town Films.
Cast: Travis McMahon, David Lyons, Bryan Brown, Shane Jacobson.
Director/screenwriter: Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan.
Executive producer: Bryan Brown.
Producer: Paul Sullivan.
Director of photography: Florian Emmerich.
Production designer: Aaron Crothers.
Music: Nerida Tyson-Chew.
Costume designer: Heather Laurie.
Editor: Mark Perry.
No rating, 86 minutes.