Cut Snake (TIFF 2014 Review)

Dir: Tony Ayres

Cut Snake opens on a slow motion close-up of a cigarette heater pulsating as a drag is taken. Smoke swirls and ebbs, backlit by the blinding afternoon sun. The shot is enticing and evocative, and makes promises that the disappointing Cut Snake is unable to keep. While idyllic and sun-drenched Melbourne is an inspired choice to set a period noir in, it’s the visuals alone that pop in this overblown melodrama.

Taking place in 1974, the film opens with Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton, memorable in Animal Kingdom and perfunctory as a place holder in 300: Rise of an Empire) being released from prison and tracking down an old acquaintance. Side-stepping ambiguity, Pommie’s motivations are quickly made clear from the ominous music overlaid atop scenes of him stalking parking lots and threatening the elderly. He’s searching for Sparra (the square-jawed Alex Russell, from Chronicle) – a mate from his prison days.

It turns out Sparra is reluctant to let this moody and potentially violent ex-con back into his life. Sparra’s started a new life, become engaged to the accepting Paula (Jessica De Gouw), and even found honest work. His country home has a well-tended garden and – I may be misremembering this – a white picket fence as well. If you guessed that Pommie will attempt to drag Sparra back into a life of crime and deceit, and at some point that garden will be torn up in a scene heavy with symbolic imagery, then congratulations – you’ve seen a movie before.

Stapleton is good in his role, exuding menace and even a roguish charm. He can almost sell the hackneyed script but the rest of the cast has no such luck. Russell is overmatched, but it’s not entirely his fault as it’d be hard to bring life to the leaden dialogue and ludicrous plot twists on display here. At one point Sparra’s fiancé Paula implores him to “Not do anything stupid” while he plots to rob the same nightclub for the third night in a row. The audience I was with broke into stunned laughter at this point, incredulous at what they were watching unfold. Pommie also writes “Sparra” in human feces on the wall of Sparra’s workplace in a scene that is meant to be shocking but is more humourous than anything.

Half way through the film there’s an interesting plot twist that makes the simmering sensuality of the film explicit and throws the previous interactions of the two leads into a new light. The film seems to be commenting on the mutability of sexuality and what it means to be non-conforming in the ultra-masculine milieu of mid-70’s Australia. “Mad as a cut snake” is a colloquial term that could be used to describe the character of Pommie and is likely where the film got its title. For a hint at what the mid-film twist is, think of Cut Snake as a double entendre and you’re on the right path.

The rising violence, robberies, and double-crosses of the plot culminate in an operatic ending that should be commended for its audaciousness but not for its effectiveness. By that point the laughable dialogue and truly nonsensical character decisions have rendered any impact the film may have had moot. Unfortunately a unique setting and new spin on an oft-told story can’t outweigh the elements that don’t work in this Aussie potboiler.

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