Cut Snake | 2014 TIFF Review
Out of the Past: Ayres’ Neo-noir is a Pulpy Brood
With a little luck, Australian director Tony Ayres’ latest film, Cut Snake will evolve beyond the festival circuit, unlike his accomplished 2007 drama The Home Song Stories with Joan Chen, which still remains unavailable in the US. A period piece neo-noir, Ayres and screenwriter Blake Ayshford take a familiar premise down a surprisingly knotty path that makes for an intriguing and apprehensively sweaty yarn.
It is Sydney, 1974, and Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton) has just been released from prison. He seems to be looking for someone, showing up on an old woman’s doorstep, looking for an old friend named Sparra (Alex Russell). His friend doesn’t live there anymore, but an underlying uneasiness about Pommie’s insistence convinces us he’s going to find out where he went. Sure enough, he’s next seen staking out Sparra’s new home right outside of Melbourne, where the young man seems to be living in a blissful idyll with fiancée Paula (Jessica De Gouw) and working legitimately as a car mechanic.
Sparra seems to welcome Pommie quite amiably, but it soon becomes clear that they had once been close in prison and Pommie assumed they would have other plans after his release, plans that didn’t include steady jobs and fiancées. Paula seems amused with Pommie—it turns out, she knows relatively little of Sparra’s past, and has no idea he served time. The couple takes Pommie out on the town with Paula’s closest girlfriend, which ends up being a gay night club. But when Pommie gets unwanted attention from the drag queen emcee, he discreetly robs the joint, which sets off a train reaction that reveals a nest of revelations.
The real surprise here is Sullivan Stapleton, generally a beefy meathead that recently tried on Gerard Butler’s ill-fitting shoes for the 300 sequel. A part of Michod’s cast in Animal Kingdom, Ayres’ really gets at the actor’s potential, showcasing Stapleton as a brooding, even sensual antagonist. There are some twists that would be unfair to spoil, but it’s not a wholly unfamiliar one, and an excellent 2009 film, The Disappearance of Alice Creed kind of employs a similar tactic. But once it’s revealed, it completely changes what had seemed like a familiar dynamic into something much more dangerous.
A scene with a prostitute ends in typical violent fashion, but it starts as tender exchange showing a vulnerable Pommie fretting about his sex appeal, which seems novel for more than one reason. As the couple pitted against the resurgence of Sparra’s criminal past, Russell and De Gouw aren’t quite as magnetic, though certain happenings help enliven their performances in the second half of the film.
Ayres concludes with a strikingly conservative finale, an echo of those old film noirs where the Hollywood Production Code dictated that criminals must be dealt with a certain way. But then, the arresting parts of Cut Snake have little to do with the wayward drama motivating the narrative, which is simply the skin it lives in, covering a darker, more treacherous interior.
Reviewed on September 5th at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival – Contemporary World Cinema Programme. 94 Minutes