The film, Cut Snake, is a tense crime-thriller set in the suburban streets of Australia during the seventies. Directed by Tony Ayres (Walking on Water) and written by first-time feature writer, Blake Ashford (All Saints), the film is a new take on a familiar formula of danger and secrets, with a hint of exploration into life after prison. Be aware that these ‘secrets’ will be discussed in the following.
The story follows Merv “Sparra” Farrell (Alex Russell): a modest, young man trying to put together a life for himself in an early 1970’s Melbourne. He’s a dream catch to his girlfriend, Paula (Jessica De Gouw), and with an apprenticeship in reach, he’s already bought the ring to ask her to marry him. His life seems to be finally coming together, that is, until James (Sullivan Stapleton), or “Pommie” to his mates, is released from prison and tracks down his former cellmate: Merv. With Paula unaware of his criminal past, Merv must deal with Pommie who is determined to pick up where they left off. Things become even more complicated when the two are revealed to have been more than just friends, and Merv is torn between protecting the life he has now and resisting the one he tried to leave behind.
As a thriller, the film is fairly by the numbers. Merv must protect his world as Pommie attempts to weasel his way in under the cover of a friendly guise, all while Paula and her friend (Megan Holloway) fall for his charms. Yet, as Pommie becomes more irate, his violent acts escalate into more vicious attacks, increasing Merv’s desperation to get rid of him. A pair of brutish police men who come in and out of the story add some extra drama, but their inclusion is a bit underdeveloped and serve only to be familiar faces at the story’s end. There’s still some solid tension built throughout though, thanks mainly to Stapleton’s menace, and later his vulnerability as a man whose heart is broken, which is the film’s true highlight. De Gouw does well not to fall into a passive position as the unsuspecting girlfriend, and brings a bit of fire to what could have been a rather bland role. Similarly, Russell was a smart choice for a tormented soul contrasted with boyish good looks.
While some audiences may see more to the men’s relationship earlier on, when it’s sexual nature is revealed, it completely subverts perception of the pairs previous motivations throughout. But while the twist of their relationship makes this more than you’re standard thriller outing, the film is rather unequipped to service a storyline such as this properly.
There are obvious parallels to make to films like Animal Kingdom (also starring Stapleton) and Brokeback Mountain, which both dealt with similar themes. But Cut Snake lacks the dramatic rawness of the former film, and the commitment to flesh out its characters as the latter did. Instead, Ayres tries to have his cake and eat it too, by dipping his toes into controversial waters but remaining unwilling to fully submerge in them so that he can still cling to his macho-action thriller genre. There’s certainly an attempt to be original here, but the film is just a tad too glossy to be a valid depiction of real life, which makes it play more as a new segment of Underbelly than a social drama with substance. With three talented stars, it’s disappointing that the film didn’t strive to be more than it is, as it’s apparent that they would have been more than capable of rising to the challenge.
It doesn’t help also, that the connection Merv has with Pommie is never made quite clear, and it hinders any emotional investment the audience could have in their relationship. Even after a momentary lapse where the two reunite passionately, it’s hard to tell exactly what Merv is feeling because the film never explores it. Was Merv’s relationship with Pommie a complete one-off experience? Or was it a larger issue, where Merv was bisexual, possibly homosexual, and was suppressing his feelings for other men? Or was he only with Pommie for safety in prison and never actually had any romantic feelings?
These are the questions that the film chooses to brush over, which undermine any scene centred on the ex-lovers. Merv’s actions become increasingly confusing, and it’s difficult to understand what’s motivating him in any given moment, leaving his character up in the air, due to no fault of Russell’s. By the time some answers finally do come around it’s too late, and flashbacks to their first meeting in their cell are largely underwhelming, as their relationship appears to have started instantaneously rather than earned over time. It also begs the question why the film needed to be specifically set in the 1970’s at all, when attitudes like this are still prevalent currently and could have been made more relevant by taking place in the modern-day. Although, on that note, the film perfectly captures this era of Australian society, right down to the golden-yellow, retro mattresses, and it’s clear the amount effort put in to be as authentic as possible, which should be commended.
As a thriller, Cut Snake is fairly decent, and the performances will keep most audiences invested in the story, but there’s a definite feeling that this film could have been something more. Not only due to it’s dramatic potential, but also because it’s rare that an Australian film centring on these types of social topics could find its way to a theatrical release. Audiences would do well to enter the cinema with modest expectations so that they leave pleasantly surprised.