Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 16, 2003
The Hard Word
Starring Guy Pearce and Rachel Griffiths. Written and directed by Scott Roberts. Rated R.
Blood, Brothers, and Banks

S’ti lla tuoba eht yenom in the Australian crime thriller The Hard Word.


From Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs to Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, the United States has the greatest tradition of heist movies. Whatever this says about our culture, our filmmakers for decades have made an American specialty of thrilling worldwide audiences with movies about intricately planned high-end robberies and the sort of people who perpetrate them. The French run a distant second to us in this particular subgenre, and, despite a few fine isolated efforts by the English, no other country is even on the radar map.

The Hard Word is the Australian entry in this field, and it gets off to a good start with its hard-nosed attitude and a cast that has both star power and good role players. The movie begins with Dale Twentyman (Guy Pearce) watching a mayhem-filled prison basketball game from the facility’s library. He’s serving time along with his brothers for knocking over banks. He’s the brains of the outfit, while Mal (Damien Richardson) is the good-natured lump who’s along for the ride, and Shane (Joel Edgerton) is the one with big muscles and knuckles permanently bandaged from always punching something or someone.

Dysfunctional as they seem by themselves, Dale and his brothers form a slick unit and occasionally talk to one another in a secret language consisting of words read backwards. (The movie helpfully provides subtitles for this. It should have gone further and done the same for the whole movie, the Australian accents are that thick.) They take pride in the fact that they’ve never killed or even hurt anyone in committing all their robberies. Yet they’re hard put to keep their record clean when they accept a job that’s far bigger than anything they’ve ever tried — making off with the betting proceeds from one of the world’s biggest horse races, the Melbourne Cup. To complicate things further, the brothers’ crooked lawyer Frank (Robert Taylor) has given them the lead on the Cup, but Dale knows that Frank’s screwing his wife Carol (Rachel Griffiths) and is probably setting them up.

With all the conniving and double-crossing, we should feel as though we’ve fallen into a nest of Australian poisonous snakes. The trouble is that these snakes aren’t that interesting. The characterization is either rudimentary or aborted, like the subplot about Shane’s romance with a prison psychiatrist (Rhondda Findleton). The revelations about Carol’s cocaine habit and Shane’s possible sexual abuse at the hands of his mother or her lesbian lover don’t lead anywhere (indeed, if you leave the film for the bathroom or the concession stand at the wrong time, you’ll miss these developments entirely). Even the brothers’ secret language comes off as a tic. The actors can’t be faulted; a malevolently glinting Pearce shows an ease with dialogue in his native idiom that he never does when he’s playing Americans or Britons, and Griffiths is smoking hot, outfitted in a series of tight sweaters, long fingernails, and a skeezy peroxide job. Yet filmmaker Scott Roberts wants us to care about issues such as whether Carol loves Dale despite her dalliance with Frank, and he doesn’t give his actors enough to pull off the trick.

Even so, these are mere distractions in a picture that’s fairly enjoyable until it loses its way near the end. Heist movies typically hinge on three scenes: a scene in which a robbery goes off perfectly to demonstrate the main characters’ competence, a scene in which a robbery goes spectacularly wrong, and a conclusion that’s either upbeat (the thieves outwit and/or kill the bad guys and escape with the loot) or noirish (everyone pays for their greed by getting killed or caught by the cops). The movie does the first two well enough — the brothers knock over an armored truck using only tear gas and a net, and the Melbourne Cup heist turns bloody thanks to a dyslexic, not to mention trigger-happy, co-conspirator. The movie has the right nasty tone and proceeds at a decent pace, but Roberts bungles the ending. The violent showdown at Dale and Carol’s house is only a half-measure, and things aren’t fully resolved until an epilogue that takes place six months later. The mistrust and scheming and counterplotting among the characters builds up a combustible energy that needs to be expended in a fiery finale. Instead, it dissipates.

Australia was founded as a penal colony and has a history filled with Wild West-style lawlessness, but its movies have only recently started to tap into that cultural tradition. Roberts’ film joins Bill Bennett’s larky 1997 thriller Kiss or Kill, Andrew Dominik’s unsettling 2001 bio Chopper, and the upcoming Ned Kelly as part of a growing trend. The level of talent Down Under certainly suggests that their crime thrillers might one day rival the ones from Hong Kong and Japan. However, the shortcomings in The Hard Word suggest that they have a way to go.

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