'Cut Snake': Melbourne Review

Courtesy of Melbourne Film Festival
Alex Russell and Jessica de Gouw
The leads smolder, but the film remains undercooked.

Sullivan Stapleton, Alex Russell and Jessica de Gouw play the three points of an incendiary romantic triangle in this noirish 1970s-set crime thriller

The Australian idiom "mad as a cut snake" describes either insanity or anger so extreme you don’t want to get near it, and while it might not mean much to audiences beyond Oz, it provides a terrific title for this dark, romantic crime thriller. A homoerotic twist enlivens the familiar dynamic of an ex-con trying to go straight, in more ways than one, when a former cellmate resurfaces to lure him back down a dangerous path. But director Tony Ayres often seems to be aping a vernacular that's foreign to him, making the moments of conventional melodrama more persuasive than the noir-flavored genre package.

On the plus side, Cut Snake is reasonably engrossing thanks to its eye-candy cast of rising stars, notably a ferocious but emotionally exposed performance from Sullivan Stapleton.

Written by Blake Ayshford, the film is set in the retro-sexy mid-'70s, unfolding primarily in suburban Melbourne and at a semi-isolated cottage in the peaceful bushland hills on the outskirts of town. Merv (Alex Russell) is the dream boyfriend who has dropped from out of nowhere into the life of twentysomething Paula (Jessica de Gouw), and while she knows little to nothing about his friends, family or past, marriage is on the horizon.

Enter James (Stapleton), nicknamed Pommie, fresh out of prison in Sydney and looking to pick up where he left off with Merv. Paula soon learns that her fiancé, whom Pommie calls Sparra, spent four years inside on manslaughter charges. She's slower to catch on to the full extent of their past relationship, but to the audience it's instantly clear. The sexual tension of their rough trade/pretty boy connection hangs in the air like storm clouds. The spell lingers especially for Pommie, whose hardened exterior and scary intensity can’t hide his raw hurt when Sparra shows resistance.

Pommie's volatile behavior invites trouble, backing Sparra into a tricky corner. His criminal history, his jeopardized future with Paula, his conflicted loyalty and love for his former cellmate and his own violent instincts force him to take drastic action.

Much of the setup is standard-issue stuff. The film acquires its most potent dramatic currency in the heated emotional exchanges between Pommie and Sparra, when the complexities of their feelings for one another are explored.

For an emerging actor doing muscle movies like 300: Rise of an Empire, Stapleton, who first turned heads as a different kind of thug in Animal Kingdom, doesn't shrink from displays of the torn heart that beats beneath brawny Pommie's '70s porn-star chest hair. His mad-eyed desperation becomes unexpectedly affecting, and Ayres pumps up the character's tragic vulnerability with some Christ-like poses.

Sparra has less definition but Russell locates the shadowy depths churning away as the character battles to regain Paula's trust and protect the life he's trying to create, while at the same time wrestling with his debt to Pommie, and perhaps his conflicted desires. De Gouw registers warmth and sensitivity, though Paula is frustratingly under-developed as the confused third point of the triangle, leaving her little to play beyond anxiety.

It's in the accelerating spiral of crime that the weaknesses of the script and direction become hard to ignore, particularly as cops close in, led by a detective who's all snarling, overstated menace. Plausibility is also called into question at several key junctures. In one particularly on-the-nose sequence, editor Andy Canny cross-cuts between Sparra and Paula having sex as a reaffirmation of their tested bond, while tortured, unpredictable Pommie dallies with a prostitute in a scene that lurches into heavy-handed violence.

It's admirable that Ayres is stretching himself in new directions after Walking on Water and The Home Song Stories. But he doesn't seem at ease on this turf, making for a drama that's both overwrought and underpowered. While the film has a crisp look splashed with rich colors, the propulsive energy, punchy rhythms and insinuating camera angles that make this kind of material sizzle are present only intermittently.

Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Alex Russell, Jessica De Gouw, Megan Holloway, Kerry Walker, Robert Morgan, Paul Moder, Jim Russell, Catherine Lacey, Richard Anastasios, Luke Elliot, Brett Swain, Syd Brisbane, Christopher Bunworth, Rosie Traynor, Jack Daye

Production companies: Matchbox Pictures, in association with Retro Active Films

Director: Tony Ayres

Screenwriter: Blake Ayshford

Producers: Trevor Blainey, Michael McMahon

Director of photography: Simon Chapman

Production designer: Jo Ford

Costume designer: Cappi Ireland

Music: Cornel Wilczek

Editor: Andy Canny

Sales: EntertainmentOne

No rating, 94 minutes