by Andrew Howe
Following the release of the critically-acclaimed Romper Stomper, writer/director Geoffrey Wright found himself teetering on the edge of the big time. It appears he had little interest in seeing his name in lights, however, because his next film, Metal Skin, was a premeditated box-office failure. Possessed of zero commercial appeal, it's a dark, arresting ode to suburban hopelessness which retains the oppressive atmosphere and gut-punch impact of its predecessor.For the uninitiated, the Australian "rev-head" subculture is fuelled by young males who are well-aware of the sexual imagery inherent in a throbbing V8 engine. Eking out an existence in unfulfilling jobs, they find their release on the road, putting their reputations (and occasionally their lives) on the line in illegal drag meets.
"Slams home with the force of a five-car pile-up."
Road-rage specialists tell us that the single greatest cause of violence on our suburban streets is the empowering effect of a couple of tons of steel - behind the wheel, even the meekest man is king, with an excessive amount of lethal horsepower at his disposal. Joe (Aden Young) is such a man - by day he's a socially-retarded misfit, living with his mentally-unbalanced father in a dilapidated house on the outskirts of town. By night he's the lord of all he surveys, cruising the streets in his lovingly-maintained mobile padded cell.
On the other side of the tracks there's Dazey (Ben Mendelsohn), a roguish, philandering good-time guy, who's currently shacked-up with his fragile girlfriend Roslyn (Nadine Garner). Roslyn is dealing with the physical and emotional scars left by her unwilling participation in one of Dazey's accidents, and is reaching the stage where she's had about as much high-octane posturing as she's prepared to stand. The major players are rounded out by Tara Morice as Savina, a female version of Joe who has decided to major in witchcraft, praying to the dark gods for the love of Dazey, while fending off Joe's earnest but uninviting advances.
The performers bring a pleasing intensity to their roles - Garner is suitably depressing, playing the kind of person who has almost forgotten what it means to have something to smile at, while Morice is, if a little over-the-top on occasion, guaranteed to chill the blood of anyone who has ever realised how easily they could have walked the wrong path in their misspent youth. Mendelsohn is one of my favourite Australian actors, and his natural charm permeates his portrayal - Dazey is never entirely likeable, but he manages to evoke a little grudging admiration nonetheless (especially from male viewers, for he represents the kind of self-assured chick-magnet we would choose to play ourselves in the film of our fabricated youthful escapades).
My highest praise, however, is reserved for Aden Young - absent from our screens far too often in the last decade, his powerful, brooding performance provides the film with the required weight. We've all known someone like Joe, the kind of person who evokes equal parts anger (at their inability to function in a social situation) and sympathy - they're not, when all is said and done, a bad person, and the blame for their situation must invariably be shared by those who have reinforced their lack of self-worth. It's no surprise, then, that we initially support Joe in his quest to secure some measure of acceptance amongst his peers, but as the film wears on his edgy, simmering personality threatens to boil over into madness, and Young's depiction of this unsettling metamorphosis is central to the film's success.
A student of the David Fincher school of atmospheric filmmaking, Wright continues his love-affair with washed-out visuals and choppy cuts, and jangles our already-frayed nerves with an unsettling aural accompaniment (a squawking bird is guaranteed to have you reaching for the sedatives). The world according to Wright is a dank place, coated in a layer of grime, illuminated by lights that are either unnaturally bright or incapable of penetrating the gloom, lending everyone a sickly, unpleasant appearance.
As scriptwriter, Wright refuses to romanticise or glorify: there's no heroic undertones or last-minute victories on the drag strip, but rather a long, painful slide into oblivion, a trial-by-fire that holds little hope of redemption on the other side. It's obvious that Wright harbours little compassion for his creations, and while his clinical, detached tone denies the viewer the opportunity to become invested in the proceedings, it makes for a confronting, turbulent ride. There's no respite for the film's two hour duration: it lurches from one intense scene to the next, delighting in seeing how far it can push its lab-rat protagonists before they crack under the pressure. Eventually they do, and the result is a gripping finale which proves that you don't need big-budget stunts to leave the viewer dazed and reeling.
Unfortunately, the script is not without its flaws. While Joe's declining sanity is eminently believable, the same can't be said for Savina, who lacks the complexity of her male counterpart. The reasons for her behaviour are never entirely clear, and her eventual fate is highly implausible (it's out of place with the rest of the film, and I suspect Wright included it purely to liven up the narrative). Despite its undeniable impact, the climax is an obvious attempt to tie up the loose ends (the film appears to be going nowhere fast when you're only 15 minutes from the closing credits), and is at odds with the measured pace and believable events which precede it.
I can understand why Wright felt the need to include these scenes, however - despite the film's length, it's not a particularly eventful affair. This isn't a problem if you populate your creation with involving characters and sparkling dialogue, but since the film has precious little of either it does, at times, require a certain commitment from the viewer. That's not a reason to disparage the film, but it explains why it never found a market, since its ostensible target audience would doubtless have preferred more vehicular action and less psychological probing.Metal Skin is by no means an enjoyable film, and its uninviting characters and straightforward narrative further reduce its appeal. It is, however, a stylish effort which features honest, believable performances and several arresting scenes, so if you're in the mood for a hard-edged meditation on the folly of youth then I advise you to grab your partner, fire up your street machine, and petition the owner of your local drive-in for a double with The Cars that Ate Paris. It won't improve your mood, but I guarantee you'll be sticking to the speed limit when you leave.
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originally posted: 05/14/01 03:32:42