The King Is Dead!: Film Review

A low-key suburban comedy with a humanist spin.

Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer, who previously won a special jury prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard, tells a tale of neighborly misadventure that turns violent and strange.

Heading to the suburbs, Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer mixes deadpan humor and soft menace for the latest entry in an oeuvre that could only be filed under miscellaneous.

It should come as no surprise that the genre-tripping de Heer has turned to suburban comedy following the Chaplinesque silence of 2007’s Dr Plonk and the glorious Dreamtime fable Ten Canoes, 2006 winner of the special jury prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. It’s not a case of "why" but "why not?"

A working knowledge of the Dutch-born writer-director’s eclectic, often playfully dark filmography will shepherd the viewer through the early stages of this commonplace tale of neighborly misadventure before it turns violent and strange in the third act. The King is Dead!,opening in limited release domestically,may reward devotees, but its unhurried pace and low-key humor are unlikely to command attention in the way of his brutally confrontational, suburbia-set breakout Bad Boy Bubby.

Skipping from mailbox to mailbox along a leafy suburban street, the camera comes to rest upon a modest Federation bungalow where loving middle-class couple Max (Dan Wyllie) and Therese (the protean Bojana Novakovic) seal the purchase of their first home with a kiss. The ink is not dry on the contract when they realize they have made a big mistake.

Their neighbors on one side are a friendly chef, his wife and their 4-year-old moppet, Mirabelle, who is tickled pink when Max builds a “magic door” linking their properties. On the other side, however, is King (Gary Waddell).

King’s house-cum-drug-den pulsates day and night with rap played at ear-splitting decibels, screeched profanities and bad energy.

From The Quiet Room to Dance Me to My Song, De Heer’s films often explore the oppressive interior of the family home, portraying it as an intensely ambivalent space. Here, what should be a sanctuary proves a source of immense stress for the couple and, as the sleepless nights and suspicious break-ins mount, so does their desperation to get rid of King.

At first, Max and Therese react with good humor and mild amusement at their own toothlessness. A Sicilian neighbor suggests a petrol bomb. Lawyers recommend earplugs.

So far, so mild-mannered suburban comedy.

But De Heer’s intense sympathy for marginalized characters cannot be suppressed and his 13th feature film has one shuffling in from an unlikely direction. It’s King himself, who is revealed to be a pathetic, drug-addled pensioner, exploited by his morally bankrupt “mates” (Luke Ford and Anthony Hayes) and just as helpless in the face of their thuggery as his beleaguered neighbors.

Australian character actor Waddell invests King with a burnt-out simplicity that’s comical and piteous. Bojana Novakovic finds the humor in her character’s street-smart edge, while Wyllie is satisfyingly nondescript as her obliging partner.

De Heer clearly labors over each frame, finding oblique angles from which to open up the limited space between backyard fences, although night-time interiors are frustratingly dim.

Cast: Dan Wyllie, Bojana Novakovic, Gary Waddell
Production company: Vertigo Productions
Writer-director: Rolf de Heer
Producers: Nils Erik Nielsen, Rolf de Heer
Executive producers: Sue Murray, Bryce Menzies, Domenico Procacci
Director of photography: Ian Jones
Production designer: Beverley Freeman
Music: Graham Tardif
Editor: Tania Nehme
Sales: Fandango/Portobello
No rating, 102 minutes