X

December 3, 2011
Film still, X
Film still, X

For some unknown reason Australian cinema has become mired in crime, violence, sadism and horror. This can’t be explained by the popularity of TV series such as Underbelly or the success of an earlier movie such as Wolf Creek. All of a sudden, this sunny, complacent, economically-successful country has gone over to the dark side.

First there was Snowtown, which remains the best of the crop, although it is a gruelling experience for the viewer. The much-vaunted Sleeping Beauty was more stylish, but left an even nastier aftertaste.

Now there is X – the single letter being a cypher for Kings Cross, where Jon Hewitt, the director, and his actress/writer wife, Belinda McClory, have lived since 2000. Hewitt has said he wanted to make a film that conveyed a truthful picture of Kings Cross and its denizens. The premiere screening of X was a benefit evening for the Wayside Chapel.

It’s startling to read that X has already been released in Korea, Germany, India, Japan, Canada and the United States – a remarkable achievement for an independent, low-budget production. Unfortunately, the picture of Australia it conveys will not be of any assistance to the tourist industry.

X is yet another addition to the growing Australian canon of grim, violent, exploitative movies. In saying this I’m not trying to sound prudish. I have no objection to any amount of nudity, violence, coarse language and adult themes, so long as it is dramatically justified.

The film recounts the events of one wild night in the lives of two prostitutes – Holly (the wonderfully-named Viva Bianca), and Shay (Hanna Mangan Lawrence). While Holly is a seasoned professional who plans to retire from the game and fly off to Paris the next day, Shay is a teenager from the country taking her first tentative steps into this world. Brought together on a job, through a chance meeting, they witness a murder. The rest of the film is spent in a breathless chase around the Cross.

The details of the plot are singularly implausible. This in itself would not be a problem if the dialogue and mise-en-scène were strong enough to prompt a suspension of  disbelief. Hitchcock’s movies were often far-fetched, but no-one could ever complain. Movies such as North By Northwest may have ridiculous plots but they are also superb entertainments.

X is a fast-moving, watchable film, but its sheer implausibility takes one’s breath away. Is it really so simple to find someone in Kings Cross in the middle of the night? It seems to only take a few minutes each time.

No-one in Sydney would be surprised at the idea of police corruption, but it’s hard to believe the force is staffed by murderous psychopaths. The bent copper in X has more lives than the killer in Friday the Thirteenth, and is scarcely less bloodthirsty. Then again, most characters in this film seem strangely impervious to beatings and car accidents that would eliminate the bulk of the human race.

Viva Bianca looks the part, but Hanna Mangan Lawrence, is unconvincing as a teenage hooker. Rather than Jody Foster in Taxi Driver, she is more like Shirley Temple – if you can imagine Shirley in a sawn-off top and high heels. It may be only her first night but she doesn’t seem cut out for this line of work. Not only is she repelled by the clients, she shows an exaggerated sympathy for a couple of junkies in the next-door hotel room. This is not merely unlikely, it is grossly sentimental. Why is it that on-screen prostitutes must always have a heart of gold?

The dialogue in X is hardly more than a series of expletives relieved by a few passages of banality. It’s no excuse that people actually talk like this. If one wants to hear swear words and banalities, any pub on a Friday night will supply this need. A superior work of fiction requires a superior script. When Shay gets to deliver the last line of the film, which is also one of the best, it is pronounced so clumsily that it took quite a bit of discussion afterwards to work out what she said.

Too much in X is merely gratuitous. Belinda McClory, who co-wrote the screenplay, also plays the role of Holly’s friend, Katherine. Leading from the front she has given herself a nude shower scene for a part of the story that could have been advanced in any number of ways. This was one among many flashes of bare flesh that seemed to be added solely for purposes of titillation. In an exploitation flick this is standard procedure, but it undermines any serious intent on behalf of the fillmmakers.

Hewitt’s affection for the quick flash goes beyond eroticism, because his action scenes are produced with numerous quick cuts, making it seem as though they were shot with strobe lighting. This method of editing can be effective in small doses but becomes a mannerism when overdone. The look of the movie is partly redeemed by its atmospheric, noctural shots of Sydney, for which cinematographer, Mark Pugh, may take credit. No matter how dark, dangerous and inarticulate, the city still looks fabulous.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, December 3, 2011

Australia. MA 15 +, 85 minutes.