Ahoy, squirts! Quint here, writing on 3 hours of sleep… which means it must be Sundance time!
As usual, opening night isn’t a full day of movie-viewing… think of it as a half-day, with a big opening night movie leading the charge. This year’s opening night film was Wish You Were Here from Australia. Blue Tongue Films, the guys behind Animal Kingdom, Hesher and The Square, produced this and it feels in tone like most of their work, specifically The Square and Animal Kingdom.
Which is good news. I love the work that comes from this creative group, which is kind of like the gritty Aussie Pixar… a group of producers, actors, directors and creative sorts that pull together and support each other making shorts and features. You can’t look at any of their films and say, “Oh, that’s just the same cookie-cutter studio film.” They embrace a more restrained, brutal classic filmmaking that never ceases to remind me of the kinds of films that came out of the ‘70s.
Wish You Were Here is no different. Starring Joel Edgerton, who was recently perfectly cast, but poorly used in The Thing reboot, Felicity Price (who also co-wrote) and Teresa Palmer the flick puts its focus on the emotional gut-punches that come from keeping a particularly large secret.
The film starts out in Cambodia as four Australian tourists kick back and have some fun. Loud, invigorating music plays over the opening credits, giving us a taste of the country. We see everything from exotic foods to tourist traps to laughing local kids interacting with the tourists. Edgerton is there with his pregnant wife (Price) and her sister (Palmer), all at the invite of her charming new boyfriend (Antony Starr). They wine, dine, dance and party, but in a flash the tone shifts fairly dramatically to an almost post-apocalyptic early morning as dogs lick up vomit in field charred by the previous night’s bonfire. In walks Edgerton with a thousand yard stare and hints of blood on his face.
From here on out the story slowly reveals little nuggets of what happened as Edgerton and his pregnant wife (Price) return to Sydney. Starr has disappeared, Edgerton and Palmer know something and keeping this particular secret not only slowly breaks them down from inside, but also has a devastating effect on Edgerton and Price’s happy marriage.
In an odd way, what happened isn’t nearly as important or interesting as watching this rock solid family unit crumble under the weight of this secret, which is why I think I liked this movie a little more than some of my other critic friends who were discussing it after the lights came up.
Sure, you can joke about how this is a gritty, serious Hangover 2, but that’s not the focus of the movie. It’s not about investigating what happened. Believe you me, those who know what happened ain’t forgetting it. There is no mystery here and I think it’s a mistake to try to peg this film as such. Wish You Were Here is all about three people and their descent into paranoia, distrust and fear. If you take it as I believe the filmmakers intended it, as a character study, I think you’ll find a fascinating, tense story waiting for you.
I found the film to be the celluloid version of a page-turner. In short I was invested in these guys, thanks to the sharp writing by star Price and director Kieran Darcy-Smith, Smith’s patient, old-school filmmaking and rock solid performances from everybody on the screen. When I get hooked into a movie like that, I can acknowledge there’s a little padding in the second act, some fat around the middle, but overlook it as it didn’t get in the way of my anticipation of what was to come.
Edgerton is the real deal, man. He’s damn consistent. I doubt anybody would point to his work in The Thing and blame the failings of that film on him. He’s great here and have a particular moment of stupid heroism that took the character from interesting to “I kinda love this guy,” which is something of a miracle as they spend so much time showing his faults I was kind of wondering if we were meant to even like this guy. But I’m a sucker for grey characters, people who have good and bad in them that mix together so something you can’t really tell which is which.
Felicity Price also impressed me here, playing a woman who has to deal with the trauma this missing person has caused to her family unit all while trying to take care of two young children and preparing herself for a third. It’s a bit of a thankless role, to be honest, because the mere fact that you don’t ever despise her when she herself starts breaking down, putting herself and her family in jeopardy, is the true success of her nuanced performance.
Same can be said of Teresa Palmer’s role. She does some really thoughtless, stupid shit in this movie, but it becomes apparent that none of it ever comes from a place of malice. She’s vulnerable, scared, guilty and kind of lost.
My point is everybody in this film could be an easy two dimensional archetype in lesser hands, but here we have every reason to despise almost everybody we see for their actions at some point in the story however I never could. I empathized with them all and that’s a very tricky wire to walk.
The flick’s not as fun as Hesher, not as noir-crazy as The Square or as epic a character study as Animal Kingdom was, but it carves it’s own place next to those films. It’s a companion piece in tone, but makes its own way.
Good way to kick off the fest! Tomorrow brings a double feature of West of Memphis and Tim and Eric’s new movie. In short, it’s bound to be the best double-bill ever seen by human eyeballs. Stay tuned for more Sundance 2012 coverage!