Hard Word, The

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the American-style cinematic prison-fantasy — in which the audience’s sympathy for thieves and gangsters, long a staple of the movies, is finally and unashamedly extended to sympathy for their thievery and gangsterism — started popping up in as-yet uncorrupted movie cultures. But I am particularly sorry that it has done so in Australia, whose movie-making élite has hitherto managed to be, on the whole, less self-indulgent in this respect than our own.

The Hard Word

, written and directed by Scott Roberts, has nothing more to offer us than our natural tendency to admire Australian cool, in this case manifested in the stick-up skills of the three Twentyman brothers, Dale (Guy Pearce), “the smart one,” Mal (Damien Richardson), “the good one” and Shane (Joel Edgerton), “the f*** -up.” These are supposed to be — I guess — a sort of latter-day Ned Kellys, only without the unhappy ending. Or the social conscience. Or, indeed, any redeeming feature at all, save their ineffable cool and charm.

There’s not even very much of a story. Carol (Rachel Griffiths), Dale’s wife, is sleeping with Frank Malone (Robert Taylor), his lawyer, while he, Dale (along with his brothers) is in prison. Frank appears to have unlimited powers, through some sort of corrupt influence with the warden, either to have the brothers incarcerated or released, though quite how is never explained to us. He has them released so that they can carry out his next robbery, then has them arrested again. Then he lets them out again for another robbery. They complain about this treatment, but it hardly occurs to them not to execute Frank’s plans, or not to trust him with the loot.

There are other things going on. In prison, Shane (“My friends call me ‘Muscles’”) is assigned a counselor, Jane Moore (Rhondda Findleton), for his “anger problem,” and she elicits his secret sorrow, that he slept with his mother — whereupon he starts sleeping with Jane! Suspecting his wife’s relationship with his lawyer, Dale reads a self-help book, Relationship Rescue, which he hides behind the false front of a television set in his cell. When Frank hatches a plan for the biggest payday of all, a robbery of the bookies’ meeting after the Melbourne Cup, he decides to kill all three of the brothers, this time, instead of just putting them back in jail.

To this end, Frank acquires a psychopathic accomplice from Britain, Tarzan (Dorian Nikona) — who occasions the memorable line, “Tarzan went ape-s***” — to join the brothers, while his accomplices from a previous job are gunning for him. But what it’s all going to come down to, you can pretty much tell from the start, is which way Carol will jump, or shoot, when she has to choose between her husband and her lover — and you can also pretty much guess which way it is, though the dramatic moment of ultimate choice is left until the end. Through all this, there is little to enjoy or feel suspenseful about.

But I quite liked the endearingly dim character of Mal, a butcher by trade. He falls in love with Pamela (Kate Atkinson), whom the brothers take semi-hostage for her car after their big score at the Melbourne Cup. When she tells him that she is a meteorologist, he replies “So am I!” — thinking her profession must have, like his, something to do with meat. She likes him anyway, however, so he is heartbroken when he overhears her dialing the police after she finds out who they are.

Though she immediately thinks better of it and gives nothing away, even her moment of doubt and fear and intended betrayal is enough to damn her in all three brothers’ eyes. It seems a pity that the only one of these criminals’ endeavors in this movie which is not crowned with success is Mal’s Papageno-like yearning for a little Papagena to love. But then I suppose it could be said to add a touch of much-needed verisimilitude to hint that there is some price to be paid for a life of larceny.

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