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Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders (Sydney Film Festival)

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The 1959 murders of the Clutter farming family in rural Kansas is one of the most famous crimes in 20th century American history, bested only by celebrity-studded atrocities such as the Manson Family murders and the killing of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman.

In point of fact, the spotlight of celebrity has a lot to do with that. News reports of the crime, which saw Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon killed in their home by drifters Dick Hickock and Perry Smith in an attempted robbery, attracted the attention of celebrated writer Truman Capote, who in 1966 would publish the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, his account of the murders, investigation, trial, and eventual execution of the killers.

Capote’s novel was filmed twice (a feature in ’67, a TV miniseries in ’96) and the effete wordsmith’s own involvement spawned two recent movies: 2005’s Capote, which netted Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor Oscar, and 2006’s Infamous. Culturally speaking, this is well-turned earth. Still, true crime veteran Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy) has seen fit to run the plough over it once more to see what gets uncovered.

The answer is not much that we haven’t seen before. Over the course of four episodes, Berlinger frames the Clutter case in the language of modern true crime filmmaking, assembling a montage narrative out of contemporary accounts and interviews with surviving witnesses and the relatives of the deceased. The recent uptick in this kind of series, which is all but ubiquitous on Netflix these days, means that the formal innovations Berlinger pioneered are very familiar to audiences now. The result is that Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders is well made and engrossing, but doesn’t explore much in the way of new territory, either in content or execution.

It is very comprehensive, though, covering the murders, the personal histories of victims and perpetrators, the span from crime to punishment, and going beyond into the continuing effect on both those directly scarred by the events and those, like Capote, who chose to involve themselves in them. Still, if you know your way around the case and the cultural artifacts it spawned, this is pretty familiar stuff.

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1% (Sydney Film Festival)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week 11 Comments

In the very opening moments of Stephen McCallum’s 1%, the audience is assaulted by infamously loud noise band Swans instantly filling the cinema with a cacophony of distorted chords while singer Michael Gira repeatedly screams “lunacy, lunacy”, like the howl of a tortured Greek chorus calling out from the gates of Hades itself, as its denizens, a horde of leather clad outlaws on motorcycles, roar forth through a tunnel into the night of the city. It becomes abundantly clear that, much like the road these men are travelling down, the following film will be a dark, harrowing journey toward a final destination that can only be one of madness and death.

The Copperhead Motorcycle Club has gone from strength to strength under the interim leadership of their Vice President Paddo (Ryan Corr). Membership is up and they are on the brink of a deal with a rival club to launder their ill-gotten gains, turning their profit legitimate and beyond the reach of the law, but when club President Knuck (Matt Nable) is released from prison, he is determined to return the club to the status quo, through any means necessary. Paddo reluctantly steps aside, but when his brother Skink (Josh McConville) breaks club rules and is exiled it sets the two leaders down the road toward violent confrontation.

Shot on a small budget on the back streets of Perth, Western Australia, 1% is a lean, mean, well-oiled genre machine, continuing the Australian cinematic tradition of grim, violent portrayals of toxic masculinity. Immediate comparisons to ’70s Ozploitation classic Stone are inevitable but there are shades of Romper Stomper in the film’s group dynamics, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead in its portrayal of the way prison focuses criminality more than it rehabilitates, and even Wake in Fright with its feeling of inescapable claustrophobia. But what actor/screenwriter Matt Nable and director Stephen McCallum manage to do is to embrace the Shakespearean nature of the story that lends the film an air of the epic. These men are not stereotypes, they are archetypes, acting out humanity’s violent tendencies as a way for the audience to experience the darkest extremes of our very nature.

Yet amongst this archetypal milieu there are political concerns to be found in the motorcycle club as microcosm for the current political climate. Paddo, being the young upstart, has his eye on the horizon, to the future of what his beloved club could be, whereas Knuck, the old warrior, is the voice of the past which rejects change; Knuck is Trump, he is Brexit, the obsessive view of the nostalgic past that refuses to look beyond the immediately knowable. His time in prison sharpened his resolve, but it also brought to the surface homosexual tendencies, which in his world would be viewed as a weakness, and, like Paddo’s ideas for the club’s future, he refuses to acknowledge them.

All of these machinations would be for nought, though, without a terrific ensemble cast to give voice to these characters and director McCallum has assembled a formidable one. The aforementioned three male leads; Corr, Nable (terrifying) and McConville are superb and the always brilliant Aaron Pedersen appears as Sugar, the leader of a rival club, in a very welcome extended cameo. However, for all the quintessential hardcore male-ness on display the true power lies, in both the film and the performances, with the women. Simone Kessell is a powerhouse as Knuck’s wife and keeper of the flame Hayley, while Abbey Lee brings a quiet intelligence to the scheming Katrina, Paddo’s girlfriend and Hayley’s heir-presumptive.

1% is a gloriously rendered and assured debut feature, but if there were to be a caveat it would be that the film is a brutal watch. Thankfully, McCallum and company don’t wallow in the brutality but rather use it as a means of portraying the damaged and damaging lives these people lead. In fact, it is the violence that happens off screen that is the most emotionally affecting. But what we do see is captured with an unblinking intensity by cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe, who also captures the suburbs of Perth with an eye for unexpected detail.

If 1% was just a well-made motorcycle picture it would still be considered an achievement of genre filmmaking, but Matt Nable’s screenplay and Stephen McCallum’s direction aims for something more epic in scope. The film feels like it could be classified as Ozploitation 2.0, bringing a modern update to a classic formula but still using the genre to address universal concerns. It is grim, gritty and violent but to avoid the film on those terms is missing the point; we currently live in violent times and genre films can provide that experiential lens through which we can confront the agony, the ecstasy and the lunacy of the world around us.

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Genesis 2.0 (Sydney Film Festival)

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In far northern Siberia, hopeful locals trudge through melting permafrost in search of Mammoth tusks to sell to the lucrative Chinese ivory market. In biotech labs around the world, scientists on the bleeding edge of genetic research push the boundaries of cloning and gene therapy. These two disparate worlds are connected: the notion of successfully cloning an extinct Woolly Mammoth has become emblematic of the wild possibilities of genetic technology, and the discovery of a largely intact Mammoth corpse which may yield viable genetic material is the central event of this fascinating documentary.

Working with young Yakutian filmmaker Maxim Arbugaev, Swiss director Christian Frei (War Photographer) paints an icily vivid picture of a world where the possibilities of science permeate every layer of existence, down to the largely traditional lifestyles of the Indigenous Siberians who hunt for ivory in the tundra. Money is the connective tissue, of course;  for an ivory fossicker, a good find can set them up for life. At the other end of the chain, private, commercial biolabs underwrite more speculative work by cloning the dead pets of the wealthy at $100K a pop.

The coolly meditative Genesis 2.0 is a fascinating work, and its canny grasp of the cultural knock-on effects of technology and capital are reminiscent of the sharp techno-thrillers written by the likes of Neal Stephenson or William Gibson. This is, of course, the real world we’re dealing with there, but then the real world has been feeling like a dystopian sci-fi novel for some time now.

That title isn’t glib, either. Genesis 2.0 goes to great lengths to connect the sterile world of science with the more earthy and, paradoxically, transcendent world of myth, religion, and folklore. Lab-coated genetic technicians ruminate on the possibility of perfecting God’s work, while Yakut paleontologist Semyon Grigoriev reflects in the perceived bad luck in touching a Mammoth cadaver (but cannot resist trying a taste of some raw flesh!). While the film marvels at the advances of science and the seemingly endless possibilities offered by genetic engineering, there’s an ever-present undercurrent of unease, a sense of trespass and the taboo. The whole thing is book-ended by voice over recitations of traditional Yakut epic poetry: somber, portentous, and doomy.

Genesis 2.0‘s precise thesis is elusive because of that inherent, deliberate contradiction; it refuses to reduce its complexities down to a snappy conclusion, preferring instead to present its observations and let us do the work for ourselves. Nonetheless, this is an arresting piece that has well and truly earned the favourable comparisons to Werner Herzog it has drawn.

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A Vigilante (Sydney Film Festival)

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Olivia Wilde Is Sadie, the vigilante of the title, a domestic abuse survivor who now works to rescue other victims from their tormentors. Not in any official capacity, mind you; Sadie’s phone number is quietly circulated in abuse support groups. One call with the right passphrase and she will appear like a summoned spirit of vengeance, more than willing to deploy savage violence to achieve her goals “I want to kill you,” she whispers to one violent hubby; she settles for beating him bloody until he agrees to sign over his house and 75% of his money to his wife, quit his job, and leave town forever.

Written and directed by Australian Sarah Daggar-Nickson, making her feature debut, A Vigilante is a revenge thriller, existing along the same axis as Death Wish, The Punisher, The Equaliser, and any of several dozen variations on the theme. The crucial difference is that the austere, uncompromising A Vigilante largely refuses us the catharsis of violent action. Yes, there’s plenty of damage meted out, and the people on the receiving end of Sadie’s anger richly deserve it, but it feels not so much like righteous wrath as compulsive acting out – she does this because she has nothing else left in her life.

Crucially, she has chosen this path. Sadie’s eyes are open. Her routine of anonymous hotels, YouTube make up tutorials (she disguises herself before each mission), Krav Maga drills, and absolute emotional isolation, punctuated by devastating PTSD-induced panic attacks and equally devastating acts of violence, is preferable to societal norms, because cleaving to those norms would make her complicit in ignoring the endemic violence against women that she herself was subject to.

One of the most striking and deliberately troubling elements of A Vigilante is the way it paints domestic abuse not as the actions of a few bad apples but as a silent epidemic occurring behind too many closed doors. Of course, Sadie’s husband (Morgan Spector) is a particularly vile example of a perpetrator and, this being a narrative film with certain in-built dramatic expectations, he does circle back into her world once more. Still, Daggar-Nickson takes pains to communicate that these abuses are not isolated incidents but part of a wide-spread pattern, largely invisible but nonetheless measurable. As a self-empowered righter of wrongs Sadie is a lone wolf, but she moves through a community of women forged in shared victimhood, and that community is vast.

It’s Sadie that our focus remains fixed upon, though, and Olivia Wilde’s bold, raw performance is the axis around which the whole thing spins. It’s a truly impressive turn, and Wilde really puts herself through the wringer to expose Sadie’s bottomless well of grief, rage, and self-loathing. It feels ego-free in a way that few actors of Wilde’s status are capable of, and hopefully we’ll see her tackle more roles of this calibre and complexity in the future.

A bleak, challenging, and angry piece of cinema, A Vigilante uses familiar genre tropes to explore uncomfortable truths. Which is, to be fair, an old trick, but one we never get tired of.