Cut Snake explores one of the oldest tropes in fiction filmmaking – that of the retired criminal with his past behind him, working on a ‘fresh start’, before shades of the past left behind invariably creep back up and threaten to disrupt the new life he attempts to make for himself. The modern filmic point of reference might be David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, but this same tension has fuelled hundred of Westerns (Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the films of Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann) and noirs (too many to list) among others, and it makes sense why this has historically attracted filmmakers. It’s a strong structure to write a film around, both in terms of narrative with the unexpected twists and easy conflicts (usually with family and figures from their past) that such a story promises, but also the territory it can mine for psychological depth – questions such as the intrinsic nature of the individual, of repressed memories and tendencies and even meditations on morality and violence can be explored without veering too far away from an engaging story. Tony Ayres’ Cut Snake adopts this narrative structure and uses it in a very interesting way – there’s a crucial reveal and narrative shift midway in the film that I can’t imagine staying secret for too long once the film arrives at its theatrical release, but one that I shan’t reveal here. It’s a film that despite many obvious and sparse elements delivers a very effective genre outing with a special twist.
Early scenes quickly establish the main character Sparra (Alex Russell) – a hardworking, handsome and likeable young man working an honest trade and settling down with girlfriend Paula (Jessica De Gouw), then ticking all the boxes at his future in-laws’ anniversary party – being charming and playing with kids as proud Paula looks on. In one of the pared-down script’s few instances of irony or wit, Paula’s friend Yvonne looks on jealously and facetiously asks “Does he have a mate?” He certainly does – the narrative picks up as Sparra is tracked down by former cell-mate Jim “Pommie” Stewart, who threatens to upend everything Sparra has worked for and cause trouble. Played with intensity and menace by Sullivan Stapleton, Pommie dominates the film, threatening to erupt into sudden violence at any point, the cut snake of the Australian idiom of the title. 1
Played with a pervasive menace and charisma, the first half of the film reminded me of Peter Weir’s The Plumber in the sheer terror and uneasiness Pommie evokes by his constant reappearances – Stapleton dominates the film; even in scenes without Pommie, the tension and dramatic thrust of those scenes are defined by his absence – he is that rare film villain so effective that we feel more comfortable when he’s in frame and we can visually keep tabs on him than when he’s not. Ayres shoots some incredibly suspenseful scenes, and there’s none more effective than one in an early night club scene – after an altercation with Sparra, Pommie grabs a box cutter and storms off with bad intentions and we (and Sparra) lose sight of him among the lights and crowd. What follows is an extraordinary scene of confusion and tension – Pommie does a lot of horrible things on screen, but when he’s offscreen the spectator’s brain apprehends even worse. Ayres knows how to shoot suspense and genre filmmaking and Stapleton is so good at playing his tortured character that his presence is felt without his appearance.
Scenes like the above abound in the film – tellingly, the woman next to me put her hands over her mouth in terror at about the twenty minute mark and they remained there for most of the runtime, and it’s a film that’s very successful technically. There’s a visceral, high impact handling of violence that the spectator eventually comes to anticipate; there’s a spatial clarity even in its chaotic fight scenes, with a strong handle on the kinetic energy making each blow felt – in particular a scene mid-way through the film as Sparra and Pommie visit the club, and are accosted by two men working there. In its build-up and execution, I can’t recall the last time a film has made me that excited at the prospect of violence, and that satisfied in seeing it carried out. This of course raises all sort of interesting problematic theories on viewer implication, but primarily is testament to Ayres’ strong sense of direction.
There has been some discussion on the film’s least impressive aspects, and in many regards there exist less subtle elements that prove almost distracting to the experience. The score proves particularly obvious – it didn’t help my experience that I attended the session with closed-captions for the hard of hearing – it meant every time a particularly overbearing musical cue was used to underpin Pommie’s appearance in the first act, the subtitle of “♫ SUSPENSEFUL INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC” made them particularly obvious, when a performance of the calibre of Stapleton’s doesn’t require that assistance. Combined with an early over-dependence on oppressive close-ups in tight spaces, it’s a film that comes on very strong early before steadying out in to a much more measured, effective film for its majority. The subtitles also betrayed the film’s occasionally overly pragmatic and utilitarian dialogue. The script is very well structured, especially the way it revolves around the central narrative diversion, but it feels like achieving this impressive balancing act came at the expense of some colour or idiosyncrasy in the dialogue. In a film that does operate in (and subvert) genre tropes, it means that when Paula delivers lines like “I don’t care that you went to prison, I care that you lied to me!”, these scenes play out in a very predictable way down to the individual words, for even the most basically cine-literate viewer.
But to focus on this is unnecessary – the mildly generic nature of the texture and colour of the film pales in comparison to the impressive narrative scope of the film, and its excellent handling of the genre and technical elements make this a very satisfying film. Only upon the credits rolling did I realise I’d been in a state of tension for much of the film, finally feeling comfortable enough to exhale safely. I also hold plot twists up to a particular level of scrutiny, loathing films like The Usual Suspects that make 70-odd minutes of the runtime entirely redundant at the service of their trickery. Cut Snake has a twist that isn’t a gimmick, and its hidden nature and revelation are appropriate, resonating thematically and in terms of character; and unlike so many films, the twist illuminates rather than invalidates what came before it. This was a pleasant surprise of Melbourne International Film Festival, and a very strong contribution to the canon of modern Australian crime films. Selected for Toronto Film Festival, it’s a film that seems to have a healthy theatrical future ahead of it, hopefully internationally as well as domestically.