Genuinely talented satirists are a rare and precious resource for any society, and Australian actor, writer and director Abe Forsythe proves to be just that with the release of Down Under, his mostly excellent satirical black comedy set in southern and western Sydney in the days following the 2005 Cronulla riots. Forsythe’s mordant sense of humour is evident from the opening moments of Down Under, featuring footage of the riots incongruously accompanied by the cheerful Christmas carol We Wish You A Merry Christmas. It’s a grotesquely effective pairing, the festive music only accentuating the ugliness of the mob violence and the sounds of glass shattering and racial invective spewing from the intoxicated, sunburned crowds punctuating the carollers call for good tidings and seasonal cheer.
While this opening serves to establish tone and general context, the actual storyline of Down Under picks up the following day as we are introduced to Shane (Alexander England), a placid, good-natured, twenty-something stoner from Cronulla, and Evan (Christopher Bunton), Shane’s younger cousin who has Down Syndrome. Shane and Evan are planning to spend the evening binge watching Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy until Shane’s mates Jason (Damon Herriman) and Ditch (Justin Rosniak) show up and insist that the four of them need to patrol the streets because carloads of young men from western Sydney are rumoured to be coming to the Sutherland Shire looking for revenge. Shane initially refuses but when his imposing and overtly racist father Graham (Marhsall Napier) finds out about Jason’s plans he presses his son and his nephew to join in and “make him proud”.
Armed with a bat, a crowbar, one World War One era rifle containing a single round of ammunition (courtesy of Shane’s grandfather who fought at Gallipoli), a backpack full of sandwiches and a whole lot of ignorant, racist bluster (courtesy of Jason), the four men pile into Shane’s magnificently crappy car and hit the road. Meanwhile, over in the western Sydney suburb of Lakemba sensible, diligent university student Hassim (Lincoln Younes) is receiving a similar recruitment pitch from former friend Nick (Rahel Romahn), a baby-faced hothead and low-level drug dealer enraged by the riots and looking for revenge. Like Shane, Hassim is dismissive at first, however after Nick plays on his fear for his younger brother (who has been missing since the riots) Hassim relents. Hassim’s proudly religious uncle Ibrahim (Michael Denkha) and Nick’s imbecilic, amateur rapper pal D-Mac (Fayssal Bazzi) join the two boys for the car ride to the Shire.
Although a collision between the two cars full of inflamed, impulsive young men from opposing sides of a geographical and ideological divide is inevitable, Forsythe wisely delays this obvious outcome for as long as possible. For most of its very funny second act Down Under is a farcical road movie, featuring two groups of buffoons constantly squabbling amongst themselves and engaging in a series of misadventures involving flamboyantly gay meth dealers, kebab craving, pregnant girlfriends and impromptu Natalie Imbruglia sing-a-longs. Written, filmed, edited and acted to mine the maximum amount of absurdity from both groups of characters, these scenes expose and mock ineptitude, hypocrisy and ignorance on both sides.
They also reveal how much the characters have in common, particularly the two ringleaders Nick and Jason. Both characters use false bravado and largely unconvincing displays of aggression to mask feelings of impotence and self-loathing. Herriman in particular does fantastic work conveying the emasculation underlying his character’s spluttering, inarticulate rage and prejudiced worldview. Nick and Jason’s shared desire to prove their masculinity through violence makes them simultaneously pathetic and dangerous, and when the two groups finally encounter one another their mutually misplaced antagonism plays a large role in the tragedy that follows. Forsythe’s abrupt tonal transition from farcical comedy to harrowing drama in the film’s clumsy, overwrought third act is poorly handled, confirming that the director’s gifts are geared towards satire rather than melodrama.
Unfortunate final twenty minutes aside, Down Under is an incisive, darkly hilarious exploration of some very serious and often difficult to confront social issues.