Australian independent cinema gained a shot of energy when the fantastic Animal Kingdom came to our shores in 2010. From the same country comes Michael Henry’s debut, Blame, which has been touring the festival circuit to a largely positive reception, and even won a prize at Fancine in Malaga. The question is, does it meet our newly heightened expectations for the genre?
Music teacher Bernard (Damian de Montemas) arrives at his isolated home after giving a piano lesson. A group of business-like, well-groomed young people grab him, putting a bag over his head. The group includes Cate (Kestie Morassi); they have just been to Cate’s sister’s funeral. They blame Bernard for her suicide, so are there to get revenge. Tying him up, they proceed to force painkillers down his throat.
When the deed is done, they leave, glumly satisfied. Minutes into their getaway, they realise that a mobile phone has been left behind at the dead man’s house. When they return, Bernard is not where they left him, and neither is the phone. Their plan begins to unravel as they desperately try to finish what they started…
Imagine, for a moment, that the cast of Neighbours have just turned very, very bad. Now give them something to be suitably incensed about and the means to do something about it. That’s Blame, a clever thriller that shows solid promise from debut director/screenwriter Michael Henry.
The actors could be in Neighbours (indeed, some of them have been), but only because they are young and wholesomely attractive. In Blame, the acting is very well-pitched. Characters behave unexpectedly, but have been written so well that it still seems believable when they do so. Only Sophie Lowe (who plays Natalie) occasionally lapses in her performance, but that is only when compared with her peers, who remain brilliant throughout. Lowe also more than makes up for this in the second half of the movie when the characters really begin to crack. There are a few moments of black humour (“He’s not a rabbit, Nick!”), but, largely, a lot of the scenes involve actors having to play high-end, strung-out wrecks. It’s demanding, but they rise to the challenge – and by doing so, significantly heighten the quality of the film.
Maybe with more resources and more time, Blame would have tweaked itself into an unmissable gem.
From the set-up set piece, which is conducted in a sinister and business like silence, to the final scene, Michael Henry’s direction is very successful. Along with the director of photography (award-winner, Torstein Dyrting), he works the location skilfully, setting up shot after visually stimulating shot. There is an absence of the overtly claustrophobic style usually associated with thrillers, as Henry avoids a succession of sweaty close-ups in favour of a broader set of choices – some hackneyed, some not. The actors, for example, are instructed to skulk in the background of scenes in which they are not really involved. Out of earshot, John (Mark Leonard Winter) loiters like a fidgety, young Nick Cave, and Natalie, more like a lanky sparrow, strides about in the sand, peering at her friends in the foreground. The audience does not always know where all of the characters are, but does know that they have different agendas, so when we are privy to one conversation, we listen out for noises and whispers outside of the frame. All of this creates tension out of (at first) very sparse narrative information. Alongside this, the sugared-almond colours and many corners in Bernard’s stylish pad create a perfect setting for a good old thriller.
The six key characters are given economical speech (Michael Henry’s dialogue only slips into expositional yawn mode once or twice) yet are made very distinct from one another. It is obvious that Michael Henry and his team have really thought their ideas through and that the cast have committed fully to their roles. Even when the film is over, it leaves you with a sense that there might have been more secrets to reveal and that the cast could have wrung out another half an hour of uncertainty. For instance, early on, when we hear Natalie playing Beethoven on Bernard’s piano, while he is prostrate in the bedroom, she switches for a few brief seconds to a more childish tune. This occurs in the first few minutes, before many words have been spoken. There is lots of room for inference like this throughout the movie. There is no need for us to be distracted by red herrings when so much is to be gleaned from little moments like this one.
Perhaps because of the slightly unusual way in which suspense is generated, Blame is not exactly what you would expect from a thriller. This is not necessarily a negative, but it does leave the viewer wishing it had pushed that little bit further, especially with the more psychologically probing final act. Maybe with more resources and more time, Blame would have tweaked itself into an unmissable gem.
This film is not without its flaws, but the superb acting, direction and cinematography elevate it above run-of-the-mill thriller, and (just) lift it to four-star status. Michael Henry is one of those exciting first-time filmmakers who could go on to do great things. He should prove to be an asset to Australian independent cinema.
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