Sometimes a movie comes along that defies your ability to categorise it simply or quickly. About fifteen minutes into the new feature film BELOW, I knew this would be the case. By the end, I had seen many things, but still wasn’t sure how to describe the world that had unfolded in this Western Australian film directed by Maziar Lahooti.
This is when every reviewer, turns to the Press Kit. It had this to say:
“Set in the near-future, darknet grifter Dougie (Ryan Corr) is deep in debt and beaten to a pulp. Running out of options, his stepfather Terry (Anthony LaPaglia) agrees to pay off his debts. In return, Dougie must take a security job at the refugee detention centre where Terry works. Ever the hustler, Dougie discovers a way to make cash by live-streaming the underground refugee fight club run by the centre’s morally bankrupt security staff. When tragedy strikes, Dougie locates his hitherto dormant conscience and takes a stand against the system.”
A few minutes in, we could still be in contemporary Australia. We witness Dougie’s initial beating. It’s a bloody, slow-motion ordeal that punches him, and us, in the face and declares that what we are about to see will be intense, violent and stylishly edited. Dougie lives with his loving, yet disappointed mother Cheryl (Alison Whyte) and the beating, from a local hood, comes because of his constant, failed grifting. Step-dad Terry has had enough. He is a very angry man at the best of times, but he sees this young man’s constant failure as a potential obstacle in his relationship with Cheryl. By forcing Dougie to take the job at the detention centre, he is effectively streamlining his own life; this is the essence of Terry. He is the chief beneficiary of all his actions.
The moment we enter the detention centre in the desert, it starts to become evident that this not quite the world as it is today. Yes, foreign refugees and asylum seekers are locked up against their will. And many of them are women and children. But there is something about the way the centre is run. It has large sister centres and the whole thing is part of a business run by private contractors for the government. Our current awful reality has been tweaked and extrapolated into this even worse, dystopian near-future.
Not only are the detention centres themselves run for money and with a total disregard for the detainees, but the guards have various scams on the side to line their pockets. As Terry constantly explains to Dougie, what is legal doesn’t apply here; official scrutiny is weak because the baseline is that the government has no interest in human rights. Although Dougie has more ethics than his fellow guards, he still uses his new circumstances as an opportunity to do more cyber-grifting. And when he is more successful at this than ever before, he has a dilemma, because fundamentally he is benefitting from exploiting the detainees.
BELOW is an uneasy mix of satire and drama that is like a cross between David Michôd’s THE ROVER (2014) and Jason Lei Howden’s GUNS AKIMBO (2019). Director Lahooti has a fine lead in Ryan Corr, who invests the weak, ethically-challenged Dougie with some very necessary humour and humanity. Morgana O’Reilly is funny and off-putting as one of the more experienced guards. Phoenix Raei has some great action moves and moments as a detainee, Azad.
Alison Whyte has a small, but important role as Cheryl and she does much with very few scenes. Lauren Campbell does an excellent job as an abused, teenage detainee.
The screenplay is by Ian Wilding and is based on his celebrated stage-play of the same name. Many of the abuses of the detainees are based on actual things that happen in actual Australian immigration detention centres. BELOW is clearly critical of these abuses and the way in which these facilities are run. The scope of the story takes these circumstances even further to call out this system as morally bankrupt.
Maziar Lahooti has created an Australian film with a mission to entertain and satirise whilst pricking the public conscience about a world it would prefer to ignore. Run time: 93 minutes. My Rating: (6/10).
BELOW is out now on Madman Films (on disc) and Google Play, iTunes, YouTube (digital).