'Rabbit': Film Review | Melbourne 2017

Empty atmospherics.

'Rectify' star Adelaide Clemens anchors a psychological thriller about a young woman searching for her twin sister.

If Get Out was transplanted to Australia and had its sense of humor confiscated by customs, the result would surely look something like Rabbit. Making its debut in Melbourne but filmed in the leafy suburbs and surrounds of Adelaide, this debut feature from director Luke Shanahan is arresting to look at but exhaustingly portentous, with hometown stars Adelaide Clemens (Rectify) and Alex Russell (the upcoming Only the Brave) gamely committing to the helmer's own script, which withholds any sense of narrative clarity until the closing minutes.

Nominally interested in cryptophasia, the phenomenon of twins who develop their own language, this nothing-but-mood piece showcases strong work from its two promising leads and striking location photography, but doesn’t finally make a lick of sense. The absence of red meat will likely limit the film’s prospects on the festival circuit and beyond.

The film begins with a bedraggled Clemens running through the woods, pursued by a hoody-wearing man in black. She runs into the arms of an elderly woman, who welcomes her into her home before restraining the girl with the help of several accomplices. Cut to Germany, where Australian student Maude (Clemens again) wakes up from the same recurring nightmare — or is it a vision of something that actually occurred? Maude's identical twin Cleo has been missing for over a year, and she returns home to figure out if the dream is trying to point her in her sister's direction. She's joined on her quest by Ralph (Russell), as Cleo's fiancé, and an obsessive cop (Jonny Paslovsky) who thinks Ralph had a hand in the girl's disappearance.

Shanahan establishes a sense of foreboding with a wall-to-wall score from composer Michael Darren loudly prophesying doom, and credits (including a possessive one for the director) unspooling over a blood-red screen. But it soon becomes clear that foreboding is all there is. Tracing Cleo's trail to a cult-like camping ground, Maude is abducted from her trailer and wakes up inside a sleekly renovated Victorian mansion that's presided over by The Broken Circle Breakdown's Veerle Baetens, who conducts tests on Maude in order to establish just how symbiotic her connection to Cleo really is.

DP Anna Howard (South Solitary), who leaves an unusual amount of headroom in each frame for several scenes, has captured striking shots of South Australian night skies and looming pine trees, but the interiors on display hardly seem native. The inside of Maude's trailer is all orange and corn gold yellow, fitted out like a Wannsee camper that's been dropped into the Aussie bush by aliens. Baetens at one point sings a German lullaby to one of the many unfortunate children — test subjects — confined to the estate, while her husband (Charles Mayer) speaks with a plummy English accent.

Dislocated from any recognizable sense of place, the film is grounded only by its gifted leading lady, who transcends the script's gnomic quality with a performance that is convincingly distraught. So good in Rectify and Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Parade's End for the BBC, Clemens sports her own accent in Rabbit, the first time she's done so in a film since her breakout, 2010's Wasted on the Young — which also starred Russell. He has less to do here, though a late reveal gives the actor the chance to show more than the rugged stoicism of his recent work in Goldstone and Cut Snake.

Eventually a fleet of fancy cars roll up to Maude’s country prison and disgorge a group of old men and women in suits. They enter the house past a welcoming party of children, and thank them for their "sacrifice." What the group’s plan is remains unclear. Where Jordan Peele's monster hit skilfully unfurled a sense of what was going on, there's no explanation here, just some last-minute voiceover lobbing lines like, "Is life predetermined?" Unlike say, Goodnight Mommy, Rabbit struggles to make its exploration of twinning either scary or psychologically probing. What's left is a conspiracy rendered with too little detail to really compel.

Production companies: Longshot, Projector Films
Distributor: Vendetta Films
Cast: Adelaide Clemens, Alex Russell, Veerle Baetens, Charles Mayer, Jonny Paslovsky
Director-screenwriter: Luke Shanahan
Producer: David Ngo
Director of photography: Anna Howard
Production designer: Amy Baker
Costume designer: Anita Seiler
Editor: Stuart Morley
Composer: Michael Darren
Casting: Gregory Apps
Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival

103 minutes