I knew nothing about this movie before I saw it, except that it appeared to share the most superficial of similarities with Bran Nue Dae – ie: it was a local product shot in Perth and the north of WA, with a mostly aboriginal cast. To say I didn’t think much of Bran Nue Dae is an understatement. I was hoping Mad Bastards was a whole lot better, but truth to tell my expectations were not high.
Turned out to be yet another demonstration of the folly of bringing expectations of any sort into the cinema.
Mad Bastards is an affecting movie of real substance, courageously honest in confronting the issues of alcohol abuse and the damage it inflicts on individuals and families within the aboriginal community, with the Kimberley region of WA as its geographical and cultural setting. While comparisons may be made with the brilliant New Zealand film Once Were Warriors, Mad Bastards is not as unrelenting or extreme in its depiction of explosive alcohol-fuelled violence in indigenous communities, or as grim in outlook. In fact, ultimately its outlook is positive, and appropriately so – its narrative is built around a quest for redemption on the part of troubled lead character and chief ‘mad bastard’ TJ.
A hulking brute of a man with a chip on his shoulder, TJ has a mean temper and a pair of fists to match. Estranged from his mother and without family support, he is on the run from himself. Just released from jail, he seeks solace from his personal demons at the pub, which of course results in yet another bar room brawl. Friendless and at rock bottom, he hits the road north to the Kimberley with the intention of connecting with his 13-year-old son Bullet, whom he has never met, and hopefully getting his life back together.
Bullet is a disturbed and angry kid who is in danger of following his father down the path of self-destruction. His mother, Nella, formerly a wild partying pisshead, has cleaned up her act but is not up to the task of providing Bullet with the firm paternal hand TJ’s absence has denied him. That role is taken on by grandfather and tough town cop Texas, himself a reformed lawbreaker and drinker. When TJ arrives on the scene, Texas fronts up to him aggressively, fearful that he will be a bad influence on Bullet.
The stage is set for a showdown between the two tough guys, which is triggered when TJ reverts to aggro behaviour and sends Bullet into potential meltdown. What follows is a fist fight between TJ and Texas out in the Kimberley wilderness. It is disappointing that this film that is otherwise so much its own creature should buy into tired old macho myths like this: you know – two antagonists belt the crap out of each other and end up bonding, suddenly full of mutual respect as they lean back panting, bruised, battered and spitting blood.
Puh-lease. John Wayne and co managed to get away with this sort of nonsense, but that was then and this is now. Corniness aside, the implication inherent in this scene that violence can satisfactorily resolve conflict undermines the most important message of the film – that courage and manhood has nothing to do with hard-drinking, fist-swinging machismo, and everything to do with facing up to responsibilities and confronting personal weaknesses.
While this message comes through loud and clear despite the contradictory fight scene, there is nothing didactic about its transmission. The narrative drives itself, rather than being hostage to some moral sub-agenda; the characters are believable and progress along naturalistic trajectories that, conventionally but satisfyingly, land them in better places than they start off as a result of their decisions and realisations.
The most impressive aspect of the film, though, is its feeling of authenticity. While a whitey from the city like me can never really know how life is for indigenous folk in remote settings like the Kimberley, you get a strong sense of place and cultural milieu. The largely non-professional cast put in fine performances, especially Dean Daly-Jones (TJ), Greg Tait (Texas) and Lucas Yeeda (Bullet). A series of out-of-role revelations by the actors after the fictional end of the film underlines the authenticity of their characters’ stories and packs an emotional wallop – so be sure to stay for the credits.
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