Antipodean Noir


WARNING: Many a spoiler.

Triumphantly Troubled Waters. 1988 was a sterling year for actor John Waters. He was first seen in a fugue, wandering the streets of Melbourne in the character piece Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The melancholia he held as the depressed scriptwriter was duly acknowledged by the Australian Film Institute come awards time. A month or so following Boulevard's release, he relocated to the streets of Sydney, on the prowl this time in Grievous Bodily Harm, his school teacher character's grief for the loss of his wife giving way to an obsessive and soul-eroding belief that her death was faked. And pity anyone the teacher - the memorably named Morris Martin - concludes is in collusion with her fraud. The pallid Morris is anything but pallid in his administration of punishment. The violence, while maintaining the flash of mainstream cinema, has a blunt, frightening edge, reinforced by Morris' dead-eyed determination. 

Humid Tales. Grievous Bodily Harm is a noir, given less to exploring the psychoses of the principal characters than to detailing the complex machinations their psychoses provide. Morris is one of three psychoses - the other two embodied within a cynical journalist and a supremely cynical detective - that eventually converge in the proximity of the "dead" woman. And she ultimately emerges as the fourth psychosis, an objectified figure in a patriarchal world, but working coolly and creatively within its structures to her own soul-eroded ends.
Grievous Bodily Harm could be re-titled, far less floridly, as Grievous Internal Injury. It's noir with its share of relentless rain, oppressive humidity and sharp, encompassing shadows; and it is often infused with a peculiarly Australian atmosphere of "wide-open" claustrophobia (when Morris pursues his wife through the Blue Mountains, an attraction located east of Sydney, the spectacular shots across wide vistas count as visual metaphor: there is simply no escape from Morris).  

No Country for Ordinary Men. Morris, alas, is denied a grandiose death scene. It happens off-screen. We are not even privy to the sound of his last gasps. Was this a misstep? The emotional logic follows that the substantial screen-time given to his murderous obsessiveness necessitates some sort of catharsis - not just for the audience, but for the on-screen participants. Crucially, though, in this denial of a "significant death", Morris emerges the pawn of the piece. That he is murderous is almost incidental; through his minor demise, he is confirmed to be simply out of his depth in the sly world his wife, the journalist and the detective work so effectively within. From a blackly humorous noir perspective, going viciously insane is a reasonable response for an ordinary citizen exposed to the duplicitous attractions of the "high life". 

Reconciliation, through an Australian Lens. In the one of the critiques of the time, Peter Crayford of The Australian Financial Review noted that, along with playing with noir conventions, Grievous Bodily Harm "displays what is becoming a uniquely Australian morality": crime does seem to pay. Such a morality, Crayford speculates, is a two-fold legacy of (white) Australia's founding as "a giant prison" and the prevailing mythologies of the bush ranger. Crayford's musings on a permissive attitude towards crime - or certain types of crime - particularly resonate in a scene of reconciliation between journalist Tom Stewart (Colin Friels) and his ex-wife Annie (Kerry Armstrong).  
Let me excavate: Tom is an opportunist, tunnel-visioned in his pursuit for "the story" that will restore a widely tarnished reputation. He says he's not driven by dollars, but in the opening scenes we see him abscond with the money a dying crim has asked be delivered to a girlfriend. Sensing the detective is well on his tail, Tom surreptitiously moves the cash to Annie's home. As the film progresses, Tom's personal journey is revealed as one of atonement, and he sees a reconciliation with Annie as a central part of attaining such. While her self-protective radar is always "on" with Tom, she's unaware of the dirty money he has stored, and the calculated risk he has taken with her safety. However, that Tom does not show the proclivity for murder, like Morris, and is restricted in exploiting the law to a degree with which the detective (played by Bruno Lawrence) is all too prepared, keeps him firmly the noir hero. 
So, the scene of reconciliation. At this point the detective has taken possession of the money, and a resigned and wiser Tom returns to Annie who, following the detective's raid, is contending with another phase of "cooling off" to Tom's whims. (Honestly, where is her sense of adventure?) But Tom is here to declare his commitment. She, in response, is as wary as she is touched. Tom, perhaps anticipating a hesitance, announces his deal-clincher: that he siphoned a sizeable portion of the money into a personal bank account. It's a beautifully acted scene, the vulnerability of both characters touchingly expressed and superbly captured in close-up. Chris Neal's synthesiser score captures the melancholy and nervous energy in the early moments, then rises to a joyous crescendo (but sensibly not too joyous) at the moment of reconciliation/atonement. But, of course, there's an undertone to all this.  "I knew there was a reason I liked you", Annie headily announces, the cash, it would seem, quickly rendering all the compulsions and obsessions that fuel Tom as cute quirks. Perhaps Annie is humorously acknowledging her own noir-style tendencies. 
So, we see noir through an antipodean lens. An Australian view of "crime does pay" may well translate to giving you a scene of lovers reunited (a scene that would not be out of place in any mainstream romantic piece) and trust the audience is receptive to the multiple layers of irony inherent in placing such a well-worn cinematic trope within an overall cynical milieu. Tom has won the game. But only for now. It’s a dirty game. 

Great Southern 1980s Land. There often appears in critical conjecture a school of thought that a good film is one that barely dates. I can't say I completely subscribe; if anything such assumptions demonstrate how we often conflate "quality" with current trends and thinking. Still, occur it does, and so something such as the synthesiser score of Chris Neal's may come in for some tough retrospective words. Personally, I think it's a terrific score, very Eighties, certainly, and featuring a powerful theme that links the three men in their loneliness and isolation. The regular beats of ominous underscore have, I think, been rendered generic by the subsequent Law and Orders of the small screen (that's one way that time can do you no favours), but Neal's underscore also often contains a distinctly Australian sound, a menacing, electronic riff on the pan pipes of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). His main themes similarly capture an ethereal, echoey sense of landscape and the "wide open", an antipodean sound popularly heard throughout the Eighties via bands such as The Triffids, Midnight Oil and Icehouse.
And what else places Grievous Bodily Harm firmly in its time? There's a grainy videotape of sexual escapades to grievously torment Morris. You see, we little knew that Rob Lowe's 1988 Atlanta Incident, Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) and Bad Influence (1990) were just about to surface. Innocent luvs we were. 

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SIDE NOTE: In its DVD history, Grievous Bodily Harm was once itself little more than a grainy videotape (it speaks to the film's attractions that the DVD still made for an utterly engaging watch); but in 2015, it was re-released on DVD - via MGM-UA's Limited Edition Collection label - with a brand-spanking new anamorphic picture. The covers for any edition are satisfactory (the Magna Pacific DVD cover stresses Morris' soul sickness to a T), but this new edition of course has the edge.

Related link: "Grievous Bodily Harm" coverage at OZMOVIES


Published 20 August 2017