Director: Geoffrey Wright
Stars: Aden Young, Ben Mendelsohn, Tara Morice, Nadine Garner, Chantal Contouri
First viewing, via DVD
Metal Skin is director Geoffrey Wright’s follow-up to Romper Stomper, his controversial, barnstorming 1992 film about young neo-Nazis in Melbourne. That film announced both Wright and star Russell Crowe as ferocious, major new talents, scoring the former a Best Director nomination and the latter a Best Actor gong at that year’s AFI Awards. Wright remained on Melbourne’s mean streets for Metal Skin (and would revisit them again in 2006’s Macbeth) and the city proves once more a dark, seedy muse for the filmmaker.
The film opens with a distressed scream over pitch black, before cutting to a dazed, visibly injured woman wandering through a maze of shipping containers. It’s a fitting opening for a film that feels, at times, like a celluloid manifestation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. From there, the film plots tragic courses for its four young protagonists: Roslyn (Nadine Garner), the woman glimpsed at film’s start; Dazey (Ben Mendelsohn), her disaffected and cheating boyfriend; Savina (Tara Morice), a troubled young woman who rebels against her devout mother (Chantal Contouri) by dabbling in the dark arts; and Joe (Aden Young), a rodent-faced twentysomething charged with looking after his ill father. When Joe starts a new job alongside Dazey and Savina, he falls for Savina, who is infatuated with Dazey, who uses and discards her, and the film follows the fallout of this damaged love triangle.
Wright’s Macbeth was the third film spotlighted on Down Under Flix (read my review here) and there the director’s off kilter, shock jock sensibility found slick expression via Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a cast game to play gangster with bullets, the Bard and blank verse. In contrast, Metal Skin is Geoffrey Wright straight from the tap, unfiltered, coarser, and rougher around the edges. While I can’t speak to their direct or indirect influence on Wright, two filmmakers loom large as forefathers of his work on Metal Skin. On the one hand, there’s Martin Scorsese: Metal Skin contains some of the most muscular, propulsive Scorsese-esque filmmaking I can recall in an Australian film. Not surprisingly, in this interview Wright cites Taxi Driver as one of his top five films. On the other hand, there’s Ken Russell: like Russell, Wright is unafraid to swing big, and like Russell’s best work his film is legitimately nutso at times.
Lest it sound like Metal Skin is, to borrow from Macbeth, cinematic sound and fury signifying nothing, there’s also plenty of texture to the film. It’s a Melbournian entry in the troubled youth film canon, following in the tradition of films like Rebel Without a Cause whilst escalating the stakes. Like James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo’s characters in that earlier classic, Joe, Savina, and Dazey are products of troubled homes and past traumas, and struggle to find meaning and connection. Where Romper Stomper’s skinheads and Macbeth’s criminals belong to fraternities and causes, however twisted, Metal Skin’s characters are truly adrift and without cause, scrambling for and stunting each other’s attempts to forge connections and finding expression in the worst of places: illegal drag racing, infidelity, the dark arts. Like Rebel Without a Cause, the film builds to a tragic climax, but here, with its Mad Max-esque vehicular pursuit, it takes on an altogether more savage, apocalyptic dimension, the inevitable endpoint of the film poster’s promise that “Everything is about to go totally out of control”.
There’s a sense of unease and simmering volatility that’s tangible throughout the film, achieved via Wright’s directorial craft – jarring cutting, rapid flashes back and forth in time, and non-diegetic dialogue disorient the viewer – and the uniformly raw performances of the cast. This was Tara Morice’s follow-up to her ugly-duckling-turned-dance-sensation role in box office hit Strictly Ballroom – and a savvier choice than Paul Mercurio’s unfortunate follow-up, Exit to Eden – and she does revelatory work here, as does Aden Young. Ben Mendelsohn, meanwhile, has forged a career playing laconic, morally ambiguous charmers, and Dazey is one of his best/worst.
In summary: Metal Skin is tough to stomach and hard to like, but intentionally so. It’s a movie with palpable sadness and anger, a clenched fist of a film – tense and tight and trembling – waiting to lash out at someone, the viewer included. It’s also bold, decisive filmmaking in a national cinema prone at times towards the lackadaisical
Next week: Rachael Lucas’s “original music video motion picture experience” Bondi Tsunami (2004)