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Film reviews: Leigh Paatsch’s verdict on Dirt Music and American Murder: The Family Next Door

So much to look at, and yet, so little to linger upon.This is the unavoidable takeaway from Dirt Music, an unremittingly static adaptation of the famous novel by Australian author Tim Winton.Visually, the movie is always striking, and often, subtly stunning. The pictures Winton’s words can paint in a reader’s mind of his beloved West…

So much to look at, and yet, so little to linger upon.

This is the unavoidable takeaway from Dirt Music, an unremittingly static adaptation of the famous novel by Australian author Tim Winton.

Visually, the movie is always striking, and often, subtly stunning. The pictures Winton’s words can paint in a reader’s mind of his beloved West Australian coastline are beguilingly mirrored on screen here.

The sunlight, the sand, the sea air and the saltwater so particular to the region — and to Winton’s writing — are all conjured so vividly, as if inviting the senses to dance.

And yet, the storytelling component of Dirt Music fails to move the viewer in any lasting or meaningful way.

Winton’s intricate and intimate tale of two lost people fleetingly finding each other has been awkwardly simplified — and at crucial junctures, utterly dumbed down — into a sanctimonious soap opera.

While Dirt Music is not exactly a terrible film, it is definitely a dull film.

The inertia sets in very early, after we peruse a collection of thinly outlined characters that no actor would stand a chance of ever adequately filling in.

The most prominent of this sketchy bunch is Georgie (Kelly Macdonald), a former nurse who seems trapped in some kind of dysfunctional relationship with Jim (David Wenham).

He’s a big-time fisherman in the small seaside community in which they live. Has a bit of a temper on him, too.

Jim’s outbursts cryptically indicate some sort of intense displeasure with Georgie. She may have some kind of problem with alcohol. She’s also not so popular with the locals.

Jim is such a withholding jerk it will only be a matter of time before he has Georgie looking for emotional fulfilment elsewhere.

With his smouldering looks always switched on and his shirt always about to come off, the mysteriously moody Lu (Garrett Hedlund) is easily the most attractive package of guy candy to be found in this part of the world.

Unfortunately for Georgie, he won’t be sticking around for long. Almost as soon as the would-be couple get it on, Lu takes off for parts unknown, haunted by visions of a dead niece, a dead dog and a dead-end career as a one-time musician of promise.

While the three leading players (and an excellent, though underused Aaron Pedersen in a fine supporting role) give their all here, a syrupy screenplay and lifeless direction gives them nothing in return.

As for the audience, fighting the urge to check the time or take a snooze is all that can be done while Dirt Music slowly, but surely turfs out.

Dirt Music is now showing in cinemas (excl. VIC).

Director: Gregor Jordan (Two Hands)

Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Garrett Hedlund, David Wenham, Aaron Pedersen.

Rating: **

Its fate is soiled

American Murder: The Family Next Door (MA15+)

Initially, the sobering American Murder: The Family Next Door efficiently breaks down a well-known case in the same way as most other entries in the true-crime documentary genre. The facts are these: on August 13, 2018, married mother of two (and pregnant with a third) Shanann Watts disappeared from her Colorado home. After a concerned work colleague raised the alarm, it was discovered both of her infant daughters had also vanished.

I will spare you the horrifying details of what became of them. All you really need to know as American Murder begins is that the most likely suspect — husband and father Chris Watts — confessed to the crimes before too long.

So far, so gruesomely sad, right? Well, yes and no. British filmmaker Jenny Popplewell makes a conscious decision to back away from indulging in the kind of exploitative readings of the Watts case that have already spawned a Dr Phil special and a Lifetime feature movie.

Systematically switching off such well-worn devices as ominous narration, manipulative interviews and salacious media coverage, Popplewell and her team instead build their doco around personal content generated largely by Shanann herself.

A persistent poster to social media in her lifetime, Shanann unwittingly left behind pieces of a puzzle that, when put together, revealed a marriage to a monster that was only ever going to end one way.

Her many personal video confessionals and text message conversations are also blended with extraordinary body-cam and evidentiary footage collated by dogged investigators at the time this terrifying tragedy unfolded.

The end result is far more chilling, but also emotionally affecting than works of this type generally tend to be.

American Murder: The Family Next Door is now streaming on Netflix.

Director: Jenny Popplewell (documentary debut)

Rating: ****

Messages of a moment become clues left behind

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