Set post the 2005 Cronulla riots, Down Under stakes its black comedy claims on grotesquely stereotyped hothead suburban trash adversaries.
I’m pleased to feature two contrasting reviews of Down Under, one from guest reviewer David O’Connell, who writes for Xpress. Welcome to the Rap, Dave!
Review 1: (rolanstein)
As one of the most confronting, disturbing and divisive episodes in Australia’s recent history, the 2005 Cronulla riots had to find their way into a feature film. Enter writer/director Abe Forsthye’s black comedy Down Under.
It’s sorta typical that an Aussie filmmaker should take a satirical approach in dealing with an ugly, nation-shaking event such as the riots. And why not? Earnest soul-searching is not our style. Irreverence, taking the piss and lampooning ourselves as grotesque stereotypes is. Forsythe certainly adheres to that time-honoured tradition here.
The opening scenes reacquaint us with the uncomfortable reality of that day in Cronulla. Real and graphic news footage of the riots is accompanied by a Christmas carol soundtrack – “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” – ironically referencing the season of goodwill. It’s a powerful intro, particularly one scene many will recall of a rampaging mob baying for the blood of a terrified man of Arab appearance, whom the embattled police shield as they attempt to remove him from harm.
Unfortunately, these opening frames are the emotional and dramatic high point of the movie. And the Christmas carol device is hauled out to accompany later scenes of conflict. Good idea the first time, but labouring the point and wearing decisively thin by the third and fourth.
The story takes place over a 24 hour period in the immediate aftermath of the riots, and focuses on two carloads of suburban yob adversaries – one lot “Skips”, the other “Lebs” – cruising the streets in quest of a showdown, each roused to vengeance by TV coverage of Cronulla.
Most of the characters representing both sides present as macho-posturing, dumb-arsed trash. Think Paul Fenech’s Housos or Pizza. But where Fenech has affection for his characters and pushes their bogan qualities to extremes of outrageous crassness that makes them both funny and perversely endearing in their sheer offensiveness and utter disregard/ignorance of middle class sensibilities, Forsythe’s creations here are for the most part just dickheads.
Relentlessly crude, loudmouthed and in-yer-face aggro, they are hard to like and eventually get tedious, prompting eye-rolling and irritation rather than delivering on the humour so vital to leavening the film. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is generally short on wit, and of course, the characters’ violent and mindless racist revenge agenda does nothing for their audience appeal or comedic potential.
Forsythe has strived for even-handedness in his depiction of the two groups – they’re equally unlikeable, equally bigoted, equally ill-prepared for what they’re taking on, equally self-defeating in their incompetence. Both groups even have a character with redeeming qualities at odds with his mates.
The Lebs have Hassim (Lincoln Younes), a student who initially appears too sensible to join a quest for vengeance over a fight he doesn’t buy into, but is persuaded (implausibly) that his refusal to get aboard amounts to disloyalty to his brother, missing since the day of the Cronulla riots.
The Anglo-Aussies have Shit-Stick (an excellent Alexander England), a cone-head who has no quarrel with anyone, yet is dragged into the fray, along with his Down syndrome cousin Evan (Chris Bunton), the innocent who speaks truth in the midst of the madness. Shit-Stick is perfectly happy bonging on and working at the local video store, but succumbs to peer pressure and the emotionally manipulative urging of a moronic father (Marshall Napier), who gifts the crew a WW1 rifle with a single bullet, equating their Leb-bashing mission with the ANZACS fighting at Gallipoli.
This stupidity is in itself not a bad indictment of that nonsensical Gallipoli referencing that was part of the Cronulla call-to-arms rhetoric. However, there is a question begging to be broached here that is left hanging: where does the absurd Skip perception come from that Cronulla is their Gallipoli, that they are somehow fighting an honourable war on behalf of their (white) nation? This needed to be challenged in some way.
In his diligently unbiased presentation of the opposing characters, Forsythe emphasises their commonalities over their differences – a trite point, really, but an important one that is easily missed and therefore deserving of emphasis. However, he also paints himself into a corner of political correctness. What are we to make of his avoiding pointing the finger at either group – that the riots were down to bigotry, testosterone and dickheadedness on both sides, and that was all there was to it? Please sir, I want more.
In an unexpected and sobering ending Forsythe does underscore the point that the warring between the groups, as with any warring, results in nothing good, including the spilling of innocent blood (would have been more satisfying, though, if he’d pushed to extremes on the black comedy track and had the two groups knock each other off in a climactic splatterfest-of-dunces).
But what of the big questions? Obviously racism and bigotry were primary ingredients in the Cronulla mix, but why the extreme ill-feeling between these particular adversaries? Were the riots merely down to racism/anti-Muslim sentiment on the part of young hotheads from the dominant culture? If so, what was the source of their bigotry? Was anti-Skip bigotry fuelling the other side? If so, where did it derive from and what was its mode of expression? What of the claims of offensive attitudes and abuse towards Skip girls by Leb guys?
To what extent did tribalism play a part? Were the riots an instance of the youth of both sides fighting a turf war, with Cronulla Beach the prize? In which case, are the charges of racism and bigotry overstated? If so, to what extent?
What of the influence of the media, especially shock jocks like Alan Jones, and right wing politicians, whom many claim fanned the flames of anti-Lebanese sentiment?
And most crucially, what possessed so many to resort to rioting and appalling pack attacks as per the opening news footage of the film? You’d expect base behaviour from trash like Forsythe’s characters, but what about yer ordinary suburban beach boy or babe? There’s a far more interesting and relevant film waiting to be made exploring the involvement in the riots of that sector of the Anglo-Aussie and Lebanese communities.
In setting the action in the aftermath of the riots, limiting its dramatic time frame to 24 hours, and reducing the conflict to two carloads of clueless hotheads, Forsythe has forfeited the opportunity of exploring any of the above. That leaves an insubstantial movie that had to score big on comedy to succeed. For me, it doesn’t. Which is not to say there are no laughs to be had – just not enough.
Review 2: (David O’Connell)
There’s no doubt that director Abe Forsythe has ambition. For his second feature film, the Tropfest-winning director has decided to tackle the Cronulla riots as a subject, obviously extending out to the attitudes of racism in Australian society as a whole. It’s a big ask, but it comes from a personal place, as the birth of his first child made him question what sort of society he was leaving for them. Six years later (and almost a decade after the riots) Down Under finally hits the screen. As I said, ambitious.
Set the day after the riots, two groups seek to protect their respective communities by forming patrols. Hassim (Lincoln Younes, in a very moody and self-contained performance) has not been able to contact his brother since the riots. Convinced by his friend Nick (Rohel Romahn) to go out looking for his brother and to show that Muslims are not cowered by the events of the previous day, Hassim reluctantly finds himself crammed in a car heading for Cronulla. Meanwhile Shit-stick (Alexander England) is dragged into a patrol of Shire boys intent on bashing any “wogs” that stray onto their patch, despite really just wanting to watch Lord Of The Rings with his cousin Evan (the debut role of Special Olympics gold medallist Chris Bunton). With two groups of armed idiots out at night, baying for blood, the end result was never going to be pretty.
At first blush, the characters from Down Under constitute two carloads of racial stereotypes heading towards inevitable conflict. Perhaps the only ones that break these moulds are the morally weakest characters in each group, and also our point-of-view characters – Hassim and Shit-stick. Both are plagued by doubts, both are reluctant participants, but both follow along. Yet scratch that surface and things are not exactly as they seem. As the film progresses, each of those apparent stereotypes shows aspects of themselves that subverts that perception, moments of tenderness and empathy that are unexpected. That is exactly the point of Down Under. Our perceptions of the “other” are not exactly as they seem. That if we look below the surface, we see the similarities and can empathise. There are no heroes and villains here. Rather people doing awful things – out of fear, misunderstanding and a lack of education.
Which is why the humour in Down Under can be so contentious. It has a dark biting undercurrent that can be sometimes lost in its manic energy. It may resemble the lowest common denominator humour of Housos, but there is often something underneath. Be it Evan (a representation of Australia’s innocence) pointing out that Ned Kelly was Irish, or the personal hell of Shit-stick’s mix-tape (a reminder of an ex that runs counter to the testosterone-charged atmosphere of the car), it often undercuts the obvious narrative, the intention being to challenge the audience and promote discussion.
The issue is, for all the thought going into this film and for all the technical skill (and really, Forsythe has made a great looking film for no cash and a short turnaround time), the intent isn’t always discernible there on screen. Down Under sets itself the task of being a challenging movie, one to cut through the topic with raucous humour, but often gets lost along the way. Instances including, that the two groups don’t come into direct conflict till the third act of the film, or that it feels a little flabby in the second act, or that the humour occasionally plays a little too close to the real thing to be comfortable.
In short, Down Under can be a difficult film to process, but certainly has a lot going for it. At the very least, it promotes debate about racism in Australia. Behind the low humour there is a depth of thought. Forsythe tries to look at and break down the causes for the fear behind the racism, showing it as unfounded rather than merely calling it out. This may not always shine through, but it is brave film making. Admirable in the attempt, if not always in the execution.
Movie website: http://www.studiocanal.com.au/downunder/
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