Film review: CUT SNAKE, from ‘Built For Speed’

Many films have explored the idea of a person’s dark past coming back to haunt them like some monster from the Id; Sexy Beast and Cape Fear being two thrilling examples.  New Australian crime drama Cut Snake, which is set in 1970’s Brisbane, revisits this theme with impressively tense and disturbing results.

Alex Russell plays young factory worker Merv or ‘Sparra’, an ex-con who, having just bought a house with his waitress fiancée Paula (Jessica DeGouw) (yes, this was a time when a factory worker and a waitress could afford to buy a nice house), appears to be establishing a decent life for himself.  That all changes when Sparra’s psychotic former cell-mate, the amusingly named James Stewart or Pommy (Sullivan Stapleton), appears on his door-step.  Pommy’s motives at first seem conventional as he, like the malevolent Don Logan in Sexy Beast starts demanding that the domesticated Sparra return to the criminal world.  It also seems as if Pommy, like Max Cady in Cape Fear, may have some twisted sense of entitlement to Sparra’s relatively comfortable life and his fiancé.  Pommy’s real motives are, however, not what we expect.

Despite their many failings Australian films have always been good at depicting intimidating crime figures. Perhaps it’s something ingrained in our cultural DNA since our ancestors arrived here from England at the King’s pleasure.  With his tatts, handle-bar moustache, creepy psychological games and barely repressed rage, the memorably menacing Pommy is another fine example. Stapleton brings nuance and depth to what could have been a monolithic thug role, often subverting our expectations about Pommy but never letting us forget the danger he represents.  I wasn’t convinced by the crims in Animal Kingdom I thought they looked like Home and Away pretty boys trying to act hard but in this film Stapleton is chillingly believable.  The only drawback of Sullivan’s towering performance is that he overshadows the film to the extent that the other characters, including ‘Sparra’, who is meant to be the sympathetic centre of this film, seem quite ineffectual.

Director Tony Ayres, who has helmed various TV shows including The Slap, has crafted a tense drama that only occasionally releases its powerful grip on the audience.  Unfortunately, though, he doesn’t quite give us the heartbreaking tragedy at which this film constantly hints and which would have made it unforgettable.  He and cinematographer Simon Chapman have done a reasonable job of recreating the look of the early 1970’s although at times the film has a cut-price telemovie appearance.  Also, some of the editing is a little choppy, particularly during the disappointing finale which oddly recalls an episode of Aussie cop drama Homicide.  The film does, however, make terrific use of music including T-Rex’s glam masterpiece Metal Guru and Nina Simone’s heart wrenching version of Wild Is The Wind.

Cut Snake is one of the year’s best surprises, it’s flawed in places and doesn’t quite deliver the knockout blow it promises but there’s a lot to admire here including what may well be the role that launches Stapleton into the cinema stratosphere. 

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Crime drama.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Tony Ayres.

Release date: 24th Sept 2015.

Running time: 94 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 



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