As this is a critique and not a review I won’t offer a synopsis, on the assumption that readers have seen the film.
Mullet (David Caesar, 2001) is the Australian screen’s most perceptive depiction of our ‘old’ culture (ie, our old white culture) which was dominant until the 1960s but is now in remission everywhere and moribund in our big towns.
In important respects this is the movie we’ve been waiting for since the first brave attempts in the ’70s to behold our society with a steady gaze, free from condescension and sentimentality: Nigel Buesst’s Come Out Fighting (1973), John Ruane’s Queensland (1976), Stephen Wallace’s Brittle Weather Journey, Break Up and Love Letters From Teralba Road (1977), and Michael Thornhill’s The F.J. Holden (1977).
They were brave because they resisted formula and eschewed attitudinising. In retrospect, we can claim – though their makers might demur – that they had a mission: (this is a phrase I’ve used more than once about the work of Ozu) “to make the commonplaces of existence yield up their meaning.”
The characters of these films were not exceptional individuals in eventful circumstances, but they were individuals, not stereotypes. Their circumstances were mundane, their anguish mostly inarticulate, as they struggled to find meaning in their lives trapped in the coils of the invisible oppressors of custom and conformity. The truth about them was mostly the truth about us too, but we felt we were more aware. The films were authentic in representation, undemonstrative in style (impressionist rather than expressionist), inferential in analysis, sympathetic if not compassionate in tone.
I think it unlikely that these filmmakers saw themselves as inheritors of Chekhov’s radicalisation of drama. Drama, of which narrative cinema is the most recent mode, is older than history, while its theatre mode is as young as 2.3 millennia. Chekhov’s major plays were written during the first decade of the cinema. They were radical in ways that the works of his predecessor, Ibsen, were not. (1)
They reversed the emotional current of the dramatic experience: instead of the dominant emotions being generated by the actors and transmitted to the audience, it was the audience who were projecting their feelings – and their values – into the world of the dramatic illusion, a world of powerlessness, futility, disappointment, the decay of sensitivity. And they applied a theatrical sort of negative gearing to the traditional escalating narrative, so that the what-happens-next impulse was replaced by a what-happens-now contemplation. Causation and convergence were still operative, but they functioned more subtly, and the audience was no longer enthralled in hypothesis building. (2)
Perhaps those pioneering Australian films of the ’70s owe nothing to Chekhov, but arrived at their own sense of mission without awareness of his place in the long history of drama vis-a-vis their own.
David Caesar’s film makes significant advances over its honourable predecessors in the quality of its dialogue, the shrewdness of its cultural insight, the breadth of its sympathies and the complexity of its characterisation. Yet it is not a great film – and it should have been. A few stylistic lapses don’t make the difference, but it is torpedoed by a contrived “climax” which betrays its own logic and stinks of box-office formula.
The dialogue of Mullet is realistic, concise, flavourful and often allusive. “Realistic” is not the same as “real”, and Caesar’s writing displays a mastery of the paradox epiphanised by Magritte’s Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe: that the representation can persuade us that it is what it is not, ie, the real thing. Scenes are short, conversations brief – considerably briefer than they would be in the “real world”, yet they successfully carry the burden of the meaning of that world.
To evaluate the dialogue in this film I have to resort to an uncritical term: “brilliant”. It has been my self appointed task as an actor to celebrate the music of Ocker speech before it disappears from contemporary poetry and drama. To find it so skilfully written and performed was a great delight. It is not only a matter of subtly modulated rhythms and aptly chosen figures of speech – and that is a remarkable achievement – it is also the range of cultural nuance they evoke, together with their advancement of the narrative. (If there is an exception to the latter it is the night scene when Tully [Susie Porter] drives out to Eddie’s [Ben Mendelsohn] caravan: their encounter is dramatically redundant, they don’t say anything to each other that they haven’t said in their three other scenes together, and so far as the narrative is concerned Tully might as well have spent the whole night at the waterfront sitting in her car.)
It is an unpleasant fact that the music of Ocker speech is a more pliable instrument for men than it is for women. Built into the pragmatics of its delivery, as much as its semantics, are a variety of opportunities for the continuous alternation between affirmations of mateship and challenges to contest. Much of its drollery operates as a sublimation of hostility (much, but not all; when the unprepared Eddie is swept off his bar stool onto the floor by his sister, he merely drawls: “You stupid cow, Robbie, I could’ve spilt my beer”). Despite this gem of laconic wit he doesn’t play the blokey game the way “real men” are supposed to, and with women (as Tully accusingly tells him) “You don’t know how to be nice”. That innocuous word “nice” takes a bashing in this film, successively revealing a range of otherwise unspoken cultural imperatives.
A critical part of masculine game playing (but it’s no game!) is false stoicism: it’s a sign of a real man that he doesn’t show his feelings (except anger, and affection to children and dogs) unless he’s in a situation licensed by the culture (eg, a footy game), and he doesn’t talk frankly about his feelings. Eddie is naturally stoical, but he can do shocking things like talking straight about love and racism. And when he says he doesn’t want a beer he means it. Terry (Aaron Blabey) can’t take him literally and buys one for him anyway. That gesture becomes a crucible of masculine pride, giving rise to a bitter and stupid confrontation that reverberates with a truth and ferocity missing from the contrived climax of the film.
Kay (Belinda McClory) is another character who can talk straight without conscious effort. In a more naive film this might have been enough to clinch her relationship with Eddie, but here it only brings out hostility between them. It implies there is something to be said for the culture which masks hostility with joking. And Kay chooses her time to talk more prudently than Eddie does. She thinks he was wrong to state the obvious to James (Wayne Blair): “They only forget you’re an Abo while you’re winning the footy for them.”
For her, not mentioning James’s ethnic difference is part of being “nice” and “belonging” – but is that prudence or cowardice? Also for her, fucking half the men in town is “belonging”. She can talk frankly about that. The film doesn’t have an underlying liberal agenda; it doesn’t endorse straight talk as a knee jerk cure for the social norm of evasion, but tests it repeatedly, unravelling contradictions.
And the ironies multiply: when Eddie later tries to play the game and joke about what he said, James comes back at him jokingly: “I’m black, mate. I’ve been told. Told in no uncertain terms.” The hostility is there but the joker’s mask is firmly in place. James has returned the hurt to Eddie, abiding by the rules of the game, and proved he is part of this culture. It will be Eddie who decides to leave: “Everybody seems to want me gone”, thereby enduring what he predicted for James.
But does he leave? Mullet‘s ironies are matched by its ambiguities: in the closing shot Eddie sits at the wheel of his stationary car. Kay’s parting words were: “Not everybody”. An open ended narrative…
Ambiguity is one of the film’s devices to enrich dramatic texture, but it is also part of the subject matter, like those things the culture prefers to leave unresolved: some people regard mullet as “rubbish” fish, others relish them (though apparently not the citizens of Coollawarra); and the debatable matter of the stiff arm tackle (a Rugby phenomenon, though I’ve seen it happen in Australian Rules), some people claim it can be done accidentally, others say that’s impossible, which adds nuance to the first conversation between Pete (Andrew S. Gilbert) and Col (Tony Barry).
Pete’s fellow officer, Jones (Steve Le Marquand), has three scenes which trace other aspects of verbal dissembling. In an early scene he quizzes Pete about the new arrival called Mullet, tracking Pete from one evasion to the next until he gets the answer he was after: “He’s my brother.” Whether or not he already knew is another one of those hovering ambiguities. (Pete is “nice”, and his evasions tie him in some amusing verbal knots). In his later scene Jones opens with a head-on question: “How about I shoot him?” A joke that’s not a joke, an idea as surprising as it is brutal, but it “belongs”.
All the actors deserve high praise. After more than a decade of being typecast as a carefree youth, Ben Mendelsohn convincingly plays a troubled man, a man with a shadow on his soul. His acting strength now comes from a range of delicate detail rather than energy and emphasis.
Andrew S. Gilbert is equally convincing as his brother, also a complex and troubled personality, torn in a different way by a different anguish. It was ambitious of Caesar to expect two such outstanding performances. It was crucial to his film that these two characters be in strong contrast, yet also have a credible affinity. A tough ask, they delivered.
And it was a tough ask of Peta Brady as Robbie, with less time on screen, to come through as yet another sibling, strong and self assured, different from both brothers yet credible as a child of the same parents. The parents are played by two stalwarts of Australian film, Kris McQuade and Tony Barry. Both have played characters like these many times before, but there is no sense of more-of-the-same in their performances; both are as sensitive as they are firm, giving resonance to roles which might otherwise have been mere professional routine.
With only a few scenes and not many lines, McQuade portrays perfectly the limits of jocular stoicism tolerated of women – “nice” women – in Ocker society. (The fact that she and her husband “aren’t talking” suggests that she’s overstepped the limit more than once in the back-story). Barry’s delivery of his unheeded homily over the chopping block is a model of how utterly credible characterisation can triumph over lines deliberately scripted to sound inadequate.
The role of Kay, a barmaid who’s “easy”, might have been read as an invitation to play to type. Belinda McClory conveys idiosyncratic dignity and complexity – hard yet soft, resigned yet hopeful. This is not a list for the sake of a list (I’d like to mention more), but a testimony to some remarkable examples of impressionist acting, in an industry that lavishes most of its attention and awards on the expressionist kind. Of course the actors needed a screenplay that allowed such performances and a director who wanted them, so recognition must go to David Caesar.
With all these exceptional qualities, great lines, admirable performances, rich sub-text, cultural insight, why isn’t Mullet a great film? I think the direction favours expressionist devices that work against performances – arbitrary high and low angles, gratuitous close ups of actions (beer pulling, caravan key, barbie lighting, but not the handclasp of father and son), wide screen compositions that are distracting in dialogue scenes, “concept shots”/symbols (though it must be admitted that even Chekhov had his seagull in the wardrobe!), a dream sequence (mercifully brief), and intrusive music.
The wide screen does help some impressions, eg, a single can suggest the psychological isolation of a character with so much space in the frame, but psychological impact in shot-reverse shot sequences is weakened. I wondered whether I was reading too much into the production design which features so many bland living interiors; seeing people in such flattened perspectives made me think of the symbolic goldfish with their deficient memories!
Did the director lose confidence in the impressionist logic of his own screenplay and try to force audience response? Expressionism works on a make-it-happen principle; it asserts its meaning and imposes its emotion on the audience. Impressionism works on let-it-happen; it implies its meaning and the audience are drawn in, they give their emotion to what they see.
Only one scene in Mullet does not ring true: the “climax”. Apart from the emotional contrivance of Tully’s intervention at the point where the brothers are locked in a love-hate embrace, there is the barely credible announcement of a deus ex machina pregnancy. The time frame of Eddie’s visit seems to be less than a week (unless we infer that footy practice doesn’t happen on successive nights), so it seems Tully must have known or at least suspected she was pregnant when the story opened. But at this late stage the audience can’t be expected to recapitulate everything they’ve deduced about her.
Other discrepancies are not so serious: Eddie buys a car as soon as he arrives. This is a convenient way of letting the audience know he’s not short of a quid, but it creates an expectation that they’re going to find out why he chose to hitch hike all the way from the big city. (Or was there a car buying scene which would have given us another example of Coollawarra’s reception of its black sheep, and it’s been cut from the release print?) In the three years Eddie’s been away the fisherman has married and had three kids – that begs for a blokey comment. How come Pete can hear Eddie singing on the creek at night but Eddie couldn’t see or hear him drive up? These are quibbles, like asking why there’s a Kosi heater in the recess for the fuel stove.
Quibbles aside, Mullet is a film to admire, to savour, to emulate, to measure other films by.
- It is Ibsen’s models which have prevailed in the age of the screenplay. Examples are too numerous to mention: any episode of Law And Order, Gideon’s Crossing, etc., and the notorious case of Jaws, where the structural similarity to An Enemy Of The People almost amounts to plagiarism.
- The thesis of David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, l985) on the process of the spectator’s hypothesis building is largely applicable to conventional theatrical drama.