The Dish, but with Crims?
David Caesar is an auteur. His films (Bodyworks (1988)
Greenkeeping (1992), Idiot Box (1996) and Mullet (2001)) are
marked by an integrity of purpose, a clear vision, and a true ear for
the Australian idiom. What went wrong with Dirty Deeds?
Well, first, he has admitted that the idea came from a photograph of
Lennie MacPherson (well-known Aussie crim of the 60s to 80s) and a
couple of the Chicago Mafia who visited Australia and went pig-shooting
in the 60s. This is not really David Caesar territory: he
writes about what he knows. In this case the script was developed over
the course of 5 years. That indicates a degree of unsureness
which I think runs through the whole film.
The film opens with an arty shot of an elaborate pizza delivery to
soldiers on patrol in Vietnam. But it doesn’t look like
Vietnam. It looks like the Queensland. The pizza delivery
is a funny idea, but it is also incredible – and that sets a false tone
for the rest of the film.
Next follows some very stylish titles – the effect is of poker machines
spinning till the words drop in place. An gambling joint is
raided, and coins fling stylishly up in the air by digital magic.
Caesar uses every technique in the book to keep the film moving along
at a cracking pace. He uses a split screen to show various Sydney
sites, and that works well to establish the era as well as the town.
There’s a scene involving blood going down a drain that reminded me of
Brian de Palma – or at least Brian de Palma with a cigarette
butt. But overall there are just too many fancy visual effects.
I disagree with many of the critics about the casting. Bryan
Brown has done this all before, and better. Sam Neill is
interesting, but very low-key. I loved his voice. John
Goodman should not be there – he overbalances the film, and he acts as
if he is here on vacation rather than making a film. Andrew S Gilbert
is really wasted as Bryan Brown’s offsider, Norm. The actor who played
Bryan Brown’s main criminal rival (Freddie? Gary Waddell?) was
not at all convincing. Toni Colette was clearly having fun as the
Machiavellian Sharon (and she gets to look great too). She and
Sam Worthington were the most interesting of the lot, I thought.
I wasn’t impressed by Kestie Morassi as Margaret, Barry Ryan’s
mistress. And I thought Felix Williamson was appalling as
Sal. His American accent involved inserting an ‘r’ into words
when no American would.
The soundtrack (by Tim Rogers of the band You Am I ) is overstuffed
with Oz-rock nostalgia. Some songs only get to play for a few
seconds. It feels amateurish. And the script is also
jam-packed with Aussie idiom and icons. For example, a
fascinating character called Beryl, who is responsible for counting the
poker machine takings, says
“Wouldn’t be dead for quids,” but she says it at an inappropriate time.
Then she produces Lamingtons! Unfortunately, that is the last we
get to see of Beryl.
I’m troubled by what I suspect are a few anachronisms too (though I may
be wrong). But did we really say “No worries” and “Bloody
wanker”(as Sharon does) in 69? Did we say “No shit”? Would
anyone have said “What were you thinking?'” as Barry says when Norm
dies. I’m not sure.
Caesar certainly puts on a hair rasing car chase (complete with Holden
utes), but the fabulous stunts are almost thrown away by poor direction
which muddies the narrative. What happened with the big
semi-trailer? It was lost on me, and I was following it
Caesar seems to be paying homage to Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) in the
scene in which John Goodman makes pizza dough. It reminded me of
Paul Sorvino cutting garlic with a razor blade in jail. I think
this attempt to make Goodman human is weak. It is too obvious a
plot device to set up the ending. It doesn’t ring true, and
Goodman doesn’t do anything sell it. Later, it seems as if Caesar
is trying to out-Coppola Coppola with all the cross-cutting with the
pig shoot & Barry's trip to Sydney to do a few murders.
Compare that with The Godfather (1972)’s baptism/ murder cross-cutting,
or Apocalypse Now (1979)’s death of Kurtz/ buffalo slaughter
scenes? In any case, the editing of these scenes was far too
choppy to reach such dizzy heights of art. Better not to refer to
them at all.
As the denouement started, I wrote in my notes “Quite good ending in
that it wasn't spelled out”. Minutes later I was writing “Tagged
on ending. Ruined it by spelling out Jimmy's $2million.” What a
A couple of trivia notes. My husband’s school friend, Dennis
Bennett, lived in the block (on the top floor) where Barry Ryan’s
mistress lives. And is the ritzy restaurant The Coachmen?
Finally, is Caesar seriously suggesting that the Mafia started the
Vietnam War? I’ll not dignify that one with a comment. But
I’m disappointed. For such an uncompromising filmmaker, it seems
to me Caesar has compromised. And that’s ironic given that the
film is all about how Australia managed to resist the strong-arm
tactics of American - once upon a time in the 60s.
© Michèle M Asprey 2002
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