The King Is Dead! Movie Review

Featuring: Dan Wyllie, Bojana Novakovic, Gary Waddell, Luke Ford
Writer/Director: Rolf de Heer
Australian release date: July 19, 2012
Reviewer: rolanstein

When professional couple Max (Dan Wyllie) and Therese (Bojana Novakovic) move into their new home in a leafy suburban street, they are given a friendly welcome by the neighbours on one side. Those on the other are less accommodating, blasting out gangsta rap on a huge boombox in their grotty backyard, dealing drugs to unsavoury drop-ins and partying all night. Turns out the place is occupied by a single brain-fried tenant, The King (Gary Waddell), who is unable to control his iced-out visitors. As the noise and disruption becomes intolerable, and conventional avenues of imposed control such as lawyers and the police prove useless, Max and Therese decide to take the law into their own hands. Alas, they soon find themselves way out of their depth as things go disastrously awry.

This latest from Rolf de Heer starts with a nice opening montage of successive letterboxes along a suburban street, each inviting us to infer something about the occupants of the respective houses. What type of people bother pasting those “no junk mail” stickers on their letterboxes? Can we assume that rust and a support pole aslant denotes a rental property? The montage is accompanied by a whimsical jazz soundtrack with a walking bass, giving us the nod that we’re not to take this too seriously. Comedy ahead, wethinks!

Right we are. And indeed, there are some chuckles as the neighbours-from-hell scenario is developed. Especially enjoyable, initially, are the ludicrously violent and misogynistic lyrics of the gangsta rap send-up Ah’m The One (penned by de Heer – was there ever a more obvious and deserving target for parody than this ridiculous musical genre?), which meth-head rapper wannabe Shrek (Luke Ford) has thumping out on high rotation at all hours of the day and night. Yeah, it soon becomes too much of a good thing. Unfortunately, this first sniff of overkill builds to a stench as the film devolves.

Shrek and da boys indulge in a little harmless backyard fun

A bit over the half way point I realised I was bored. The narcissistic appeal of filmic immersion in a humorously treated and all-too-familiar suburban world quickly wears off, and the yuppy(ish) stereotype lead couple are not interesting enough in themselves to power the piece. Further, Bojana Novakovic is a weak link as Therese, not assisted by some bum lines. Or perhaps her character is to blame; whatever, I found her irritating and unconvincing.

The lowlife neighbours are nothing more than cartoon sketches, whose comic appeal quickly falls flat in the absence of any meaningful dramatic development. The King is an exception, Gary Waddell doing his best to breathe life into his character, but he doesn’t have much to play with.

These reservations aside, as a light-hearted and sometimes charming depiction of suburban life pushing off a premise many will identify with, the movie works OK until it runs out of gas. Then, almost desperately short of inspiration it seems, de Heer veers off the tracks tonally and narratively, hoonishly spinning out. When the dust settles, his now dinged-up and backfiring vehicle is left sputtering toxic fumes in some sort of low-budget black comedy theatre milieu. It’s really quite bemusing.

Max and Therese look up from their grevilleas, a tad concerned about the goings-on next door…

From well-controlled suburban comedy, the piece unravels into something resembling an improvised theatre arts student exercise, as we are wrenched from cosy yuppy household to a dinghy one-room set, with a corpse hanging from ropes, and Maori drug dealer heavies breaking legs and heads with baseball bats… Too much, much too much. And not funny.

My partner remarked astutely that it is as if Rolf de Heer had suddenly decided to do a Rolf de Heer. She was referencing the film that put him on the directorial map, the erratic and meandering but highly original, blackly funny, jaw-droppingly bizarro and generally extremely impressive Bad Boy Bubby.

I’ve had a soft spot for de Heer ever since Bad Boy Bubby. I wanted to like this, and for a while the signs were good. But jeez, nothing survives a derailment of this magnitude. The narrative recovers some poise with a nice (and generically appropriate) twist at the end that formalists like me will find faintly satisfying, but all too late for redemption.

I don’t like dissing de Heer, but gotta call it how I see it: this is a barker from someone who should know a whole lot better. Some scripts are best left untroubled in the bottom drawer.

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7 thoughts on “The King Is Dead! Movie Review”

  1. Well said, rolanstein!
    I agree with everything here. Barker indeed. This film lacked two things: pace, and a script editor.
    There were a couple of narrative dead ends too. What was the point of the little girl next door, Mirabelle? The scene where she was frightened by the bad guys was – for want of a better description – in exceptionally poor taste, and out of character too. She had been depicted as quite a tough little cookie. Also, all the stuff about the rules for the magic door: I felt sure that somehow she would save the day either by following or breaking one of these rules, but all it served was to let her out into the street for the aforementioned scene. Clumsy stuff.
    And the ending was unsatisfactory – weren’t they still going to be ten grand out of pocket?
    I agree the violence was not funny. And I hated it that the bad guys “won”. Even in a comedy surely there should be a moral heart, or a comeuppance at least! At the heart of ,The King Is Dead! was only a kind of resigned cynicism that sat ill with the comedy.
    Now I’m interested that you wanted to like this. I’ve been struggling with my own preconceived ideas about films. I wanted to like Take This Waltz, but couldn’t quite get there; didn’t want to like Margaret, but loved it; haven’t seen Bad Boy Bubby, but loved Ten Canoes – and Dan Wyllie – so was inclined to like this one, but heard the woofing early. So I agree, you have to call it as you see it.
    And yet. If you knew nothing of this film’s provenance, and came across it on TV late one night or on a lazy Sunday arvo, I reckon you’d chuckle a bit and feel you’d stumbled upon an oddly cute unpolished gem, albeit only a semi-precious one.

  2. So we’re in agreement here, Karen, more or less.

    Actually, I didn’t even get that part about the little girl – what did the nasty folk next door do to her? Or was she scared by something? Either I had a lapse in concentration (very possible – was bored by that point), or it wasn’t made clear. Maybe you can enlighten me?

    10K out of pocket, huh? Didn’t do those calculations! So, you’d take away from me even the tiny satisfaction of that little finishing twist? Aw, let’s let him off that far…how’d you manage to stay that alert by the end, anyway?

    Re the film’s provenance, I knew nothing of it, except that de Heer was director. I’m guessing that’s what you were referring to?

    No way I would have responded any more positively in the context you mention (lazy Sunday avo on TV, director unknown etc). There was nothing gem-like about this mess as far as I’m concerned, unpolished or whatever. I have no doubt I would have turned it off half way through. I don’t like being bored.


  3. Can’t help re the scaring-Mirabelle scene. It was not clear what exactly had been done, except that they hadn’t touched her.
    Yeah, King owed $30K, and wassisname demanded $40K from Max… Maybe he would have been satisfied with the 30 in the circumstances, but having demanded 40 … What do you reckon?
    Yes, I meant the provenance of the director and his rep, ditto the actors. Yes, we are in broad agreement, but where we differ is that I don’t mind being somewhat bored! When I’m bored, I can easily assume the position of meta-interest, where I start to wonder what the scriptwriters will do to get the characters out of the situation they’re in, or whatever. When you’re wondering about the filmmakers instead of the film, it’s a sure sign the film has failed. Either that, or it’s so brilliant you’re in awe. One or the other. May need to rethink this thesis …

  4. Top review. In fact, I reckon if you keep working at it for a few more years you might even rival Mark Naglazas! Look, I don’t want to give you a big head but ohchrist i bet you’re gnashing your teeth about now. Sorry, I’m a pisstaker through and through. But it IS a top review…….

  5. Why thank ya, Mr Soze – I think.

    But I’m curious as to why you consider this a “top review”? You give no indication of whether you’ve seen the film, and if you haven’t, your plaudits are evidently nothing to do with agreeing or disagreeing with my assessment per se. Hmmm, gives me an idea for a post on the topic of criticism. I suspect you and Karen – at least – may have a few things to say. Stand by…

  6. It’s a top review because it’s about THE MOVIE ITSELF, not what the movie is ABOUT or a “study” of or its “message” or what it SYMBOLIZES or whether it’s on the right side of history or……….

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