Cut Snake

September 25, 2015
Sullivan Stapleton in 'Cut Snake' (2014)
Sullivan Stapleton in 'Cut Snake' (2014)

It’s a chilling prospect but we seem to be in the midst of a seventies revival. A growing number of new films are either set in the seventies or draw upon the music of that era. The latest is Tony Ayres’s Cut Snake, which takes us on an anti-nostalgic journey through the Australian suburban sprawl, and the ghastly fashions that dominated that decade. The first song we hear is Lynsey De Paul’s Sugar Me. Remember that one?

The ‘cut snake’ is ex-convict James Stewart, known by the nickname of “Pommie”. He is played by Sullivan Stapleton, an actor you may remember from Animal Kingdom (2010), who seems forever destined to be cast as a cop or a criminal. On this occasion he is not merely a bad guy but an incipient psychopath – a hard man with a short fuse and an instinctive flair for violence. Stapleton ensures that every time Pommie appears on screen we start clutching the sides of our cinema seats. It’s a performance that deserves to win awards.

What lifts the character above the B movie stereotypes is a fierce capacity for love and loyalty that simmers beneath the menacing shell. A true psychopath has no feelings for anyone, but this is not the case with Pommie. When he is let out of prison in Sydney, his first priority is to track down his former cellmate, Merv (Alex Russell) whom he refers to as “young sparra”.

Merv, however, is not hanging out for a reunion. He has moved to Melbourne, got a steady job, a house, and a fiancée, Paula (Jessica De Gouw). He has told no-one about his stint in prison, putting all his energy into making a fresh start. To Jessica’s comfortably well-off parents and friends, he is an upright young man. His deepest ambition is to live the suburban dream.

None of this makes any impression on Pommie, who turns up at Merv’s door and invites himself to stay. The best Merv can do is introduce him to Paula as an old friend and hope for Pommie’s discretion, but the guest from hell is too mad and too dangerous to hold the line for long. He tries to be charming, and helpful around the house, but his thoughts are on other matters.

Pommie’s only profession is crime. When he needs money his first option is a break-in or an assault. This comes so naturally he can’t believe Merv doesn’t want to join him in a caper. The uneasy equilibrium is maintained until the young couple take Pommie out on a double date with Paula’s friend, Yvonne (Megan Holloway). When he is teased during a drag show, Pommie’s murderous rage surges to the surface, and a chain of violent events is initiated.

It’s a nightmare for Merv, who sees his carefully-constructed new life disappearing fast. Pommie has a hold over him that is much deeper than he wants to admit. For Pommie, whom the police will describe as a cold-blooded killer, the young sparra may be the only human being he’s ever loved. Ayres and scriptwriter, Blake Ayshford, make us feel a twinge of sympathy for Pommie, who appears to have led a life without options. Yet our sympathy doesn’t diminish an air of foreboding that only gets stronger as the film progresses.

Cut Snake is a film noir set in the broad daylight of the Australian suburbs. Stapleton’s Pommie is as much of a brooding menace as any great noir villain, but without the calculating intelligence. He is a creature of pure instinct, driven by upsurges of rage and love. Although his mere presence is enough to electrify the atmosphere of any scene, Pommie’s crimes are more like reflex actions than expressions of evil. He is an extreme case of the bewildered, inarticulate Aussie male, driven mad by beating his head against the cage of life.

Cut Snake
Directed by Tony Ayres
Written by Blake Ayshford
Starring Sullivan Stapleton, Alex Russell, Jessica De Gouw, Megan Holloway
Australia, rated MA 15+, 94 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26th September, 2015.