Hail: Film Review

A risk-taking piece of experimental cinema about a real-life ex-con from Australia.

Australian auteur Amiel Courtin-Wilson focuses on artistically inclined ex-convict Daniel P. Jones, who gets to play himself.

SYDNEY — Daniel P. Jones is an artistically inclined ex-convict playing a lightly fictionalized version of himself in Aussie auteur Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s out-there docu-drama. Dissonant and brutal, but also unexpectedly tender, Hail melds coarse reality, extreme close-ups, nightmarish montages – including one featuring a dead horse falling from the sky – and a soundtrack that’s alternately jarring and lovely.

It’s a risky piece of experimental cinema with an appeal seemingly limited to festival-goers, although Madman Entertainment plans an Australian release. The Flood Projects production is the first Australian dramatic feature selected to screen at the Venice International Film Festival in nearly a decade.

Courtin-Wilson, a young Melbourne filmmaker who has won accolades on the festival circuit with the documentaries Chasing Buddha and Bastardy, met Jones when he was working for a theater group for former inmates. Their friendship flowered into an artistic collaboration, resulting in the short documentary Cicada, which screened in Directors’ Fortnight at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

The director used a similar process to shoot Hail: He interviewed the 50-year-old actor about his life and then shaped the dialogue into a series of dramatic scenes. The technique allows Jones to own the material, providing a heightened version of his own experiences, and has the effect of immersing us in his unsettled mind.

The film starts off conventionally enough with Danny’s (Jones) release from a Melbourne jail. He returns home to Leanne (played with impressive honesty by Jones’ real-life partner Leanne Letch) and their abundant love, playful and real, gets them through for a while.

But the outside world soon sours for Danny, as he struggles to find work and reconnect with old friends, all the time battling the booze and his prison-hardened inner demons. 

A heroin-dealer from Leanne’s past (Dario Ettia) comes bearing trouble and Danny enters a vortex of anger and violence. From here, this uncompromising film parts ways with convention, a harsh wall of sound accompanying a string of loosely linked visuals, interspersed with lyrical passages and spells of silence.

It’s potentially alienating stuff but there’s something magnetic about the hulking Danny, with his otherworldly eyes set in a face trampled by years in prison. Cinematographer Germain McMicking’s lensing is confident throughout, while Courtin-Wilson binds the whole together with his singular vision and extreme dedication to giving an intriguing fringe-dweller a voice.

Venue: Adelaide Film Festival, Venice International Film Festival
Production company: Flood Projects
Cast: Daniel P. Jones, Leanne Letch, Dario Ettia
Writer-director: Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Producers: Michael Cody, Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Executive producers: Nick Barkla, Andrew De Groot, Laura Gordon, Patrick Harford, Jack Hutchings, Richard Lowenstein, Germain McMicking, Lynn Maree Milburn, Shaun Miller, Rohan Zerna
Director of photography: Germain McMicking
Production and costume designer: Zohie Castellano
Music: Steve Benwell
Editor: Peter Sciberras
Sales: LevelK

No rating, 104 minutes