Blame

June 25, 2011
Blame
Blame

Australian cinema has been in the doldrums for years, but with the recent success of Animal Kingdom, and two acclaimed features by new directors released within the past month, it seems we are experiencing a crime-led recovery. First there was Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown, and now Michael Henry’s Blame, which has already been screened in film festivals around the world and did brisk business at Cannes.

Comparisons may be odious, but they are unavoidable. Snowtown is a bleak, gritty chronicle of dysfunctional families and serial murder. It gains an extra level of creepiness by being based on real-life events.

Blame, by contrast, is a taut, stylish low-budget thriller, with some of the psychological complexity one might expect from a film by Claude Chabrol.

Of the two movies, Blame is by far the most watchable and best tailored for success at the box office, but Snowtown is the superior production. Grim, dark and grainy, the muted horror of this film lingers long in the mind, partly because of its painstaking portrait of an Australian underclass. Blame feels like a piece of ensemble acting set in the bright light of day, with a middle-class ambience. It is a confection for the cinema, whereas Snowtown is a slice of life that reveals a thoroughly rotten core.

Blame begins with a few haunting bars of Schubert’s Piano Trio No.2, which is almost grounds to excuse any deficiencies that follow. It is a film about a home invasion, although the culprits are not raging psychos but five young people from comfortably bourgeois homes. The setting is the Western Australian bush, south-east of Perth, and the victim is Bernard, a music teacher. The perpetrators maintain a strict silence as Bernard is grabbed, tied up and forrced to swallow sleeping pills. When the masks come off, we meet Nick and Anthony, Natalie and Cate. A fifth friend, John, has waited by the car, not wanting to get involved.

It is only as they drive away, believing Bernard’s suicide has been successfully staged, that we begin to learn the reasons for the attack. It has been a mere twenty-four hours since the funeral of Cate’s sister, Alice, dead by her own hand. The group has come directly fom the wake to take revenge on the music teacher with whom she had an affair while still at school. They believe the relationship had recently been resumed, driving Alice to self-destruction.

When Anthony realises he has left his mobile phone behind they hurriedly return to the scene of the crime, only to find that Bernard has revived. He recognises Natalie’s voice, and their cover is blown. They accept the job has to be finished, but discover just how difficult it can be to kill one man. Blunders and problems accrue, while Bernard’s talk undermines their original sureness of purpose. As tensions build, the group begins to unravel. The story is not as clear as they thought, with growing suggestions of secrecy and manipulation.

The plot has a formidable array of twists and turns, never flagging for a minute. One of the subtleties of Henry’s direction is that the film begins with mainly long and wide angle shots, and gradually closes in, as we are drawn into a deeper understanding of the personalities and motivations. As the story progresses, every character is transformed and revealed in a different light.

The cast is a roll call of emerging Australian talent. Bernard is played by Damian de Montemas, who has starred in Underbelly; Natalie is played by Sophie Lowe (Beautiful Kate); Cate by Kestie Morassi (Wolf Creek); Simon Stone, Ashley Zukerman and Mark Leonard Winter,  are young Melbourne actors with a strong theatrical background.

If the story is somewhat implausible this has never been a major drawback for a thriller. Hitchcock’s films are filled with completely implausible actions. Although it may sound incongruous, what Blame lacks most is a sense of humour. In the hands of a Chabrol, a Hitchcock or even Peter Weir, the worst tales of murder and betrayal include shafts of black humour that relieve the tension momentarily, only to plunge us back into the narrative armed with a sense of bathos.

In a film that is really a comedy of errors there is no let up, with the possible exception of a visit from the postman who has the races blaring from his van radio. There is also a hint of caricature in these characters: John, too dark and brooding; Natalie, too sphinx-like, Nick, too full of manic aggression. Ultimately the movie displays more style than substance, with the psychology lacking the finesse of the camera work. Blame is a well-made entertainment that sits poised on the verge of something greater. The technique is impeccable, but amid all that blazing Western Australian sunshine one hungers for a little chiaroscuro.

 

Australia. Rated MA. 86 minutes.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 18, 2011