Sundance 2011 Review: MAD BASTARDS
It goes without saying that there are few parts of this world that are pumping out routinely solid pieces of narrative cinema quite like the great country of Australia.
With 2010 being something of a renaissance for the nation, with films like ANIMAL KINGDOM and RED HILL garnering quite a bit of critical acclaim, the Aussies are back with another highly talked about film, the Sundance premiere of Brendan Fletcher’s MAD BASTARDS. However, despite some lush visuals, and one hell of an engaging score, the film ultimately rings more hallow than a decade old didgeridoo.
A coming-of-age story in many ways, MAD BASTARDS follows TJ, a tough Aboriginal man, who must travel to Kimberley to see the son he has never truly known. This trip takes him on a journey not only across some absolutely breathtaking landscapes, but also into the inner most reaches of his being. Bringing him to question not only his life moving forward, but his life looking back, this film is a visually haunting meditation on humanity, wrapped around a narrative that ultimately drives you absolutely mad in its mediocrity.
The film, featuring a largely Aboriginal cast, is an interesting little beast.
MAD BASTARDS thrives on the viewers enthralling love for the lush and vibrant visuals that the Australian landscape can help craft. Featuring an absolutely breathtaking sense of style, the film’s cinematography may be where it is most easily championed. It features a neo-neo-realist type color palette, and while it may lack the truly coherent narrative that makes films from the likes of Ramin Bahrani so engaging, it’s a visual tour-de-force that makes even films like the aforementioned RED HILL pale in comparison.
However, it is this style that also inherently alters the nature of the narrative.
The film’s primary issue comes in the form of its ability to coherently tell a story, and ultimately reward the viewer once the said story is told. Based off real life events of the film’s actors lives, the film suffers from not only overall poor editing (cross-cuts, disorienting character shifts, etc.,) but also a true lack of depth with the characters in question. For any good character study, let alone any coming of age tale as there are about a dime a dozen, each character must have a set of distinctive traits and characteristics that sets them apart from one another. While I never became confused as to what was going on, there is a distinct disconnect between the viewer and the characters (and more over the narrative) that makes the film seem as though it’s not quite sure what it wants to truly do.
BASTARDS does do a lot of things within the narrative right, at least thematically, however. The film’s primary focus here may be on the landscapes, particularly when looking at Fletcher’s almost fetishistic drive to jump from scene to scene and landscape to landscape, but thematically, it’s a really interesting look at a collection of men who all share one thing: no men to look up to. This theme may be one that’s looked upon in many films of this nature (take Ken Loach’s brilliant KES for example), but it's tonally well done here, and ultimately plays as the film’s primary rewarding element when the final credits begin to roll.
Also, the use of music here is nothing short of impeccable. With artists The Pigram Brothers and Alex Lloyd teaming up for the film’s soundtrack, it is used to utter perfection here, often adding a sense of emotional depth to portions of the film that could used that kick in the nuts.
It also helps that the performances are relatively solid. Top lining this cast is Dean Daley-Jones, who is perfectly cast as the brooding journeyman TJ. He plays an ex-con who has a perfectly portrayed violent side that is often left simmering just below the surface. Newcomer Lucas Yeeda plays his long lost son, Bullet, who after burning down a house, is set to a special camp. Not given the time to say all that much, he may not give a star-making performance, but it is a turn that just as tonally perfect as his character’s father’s. Ngaire Pigram gives a great performance as Bullet’s mother, and rounding out the cast is Greg Taiti, who gives the film’s most memorable turn as Bullet’s grandfather, Tex. Simply put, the film is carried on the shoulders of more than capable stars.