December 11, 2005. In the seaside suburb of Cronulla, there’s a race riot on the beach. White Aussies versus Lebanese. Australia is shocked. Politicians and the media rush to condemn the violence. This is not how Australia is supposed to be, is the general consensus.
It is the day after the riot and as it says in the publicity, “two carloads of hotheads from either side are destined to collide”. This is the not-apparently-funny set up for the new Australian comedy DOWN UNDER. Writer–director Abe Forsythe has chosen a controversial event in recent history, one that has barely been discussed in public, and decided to rip off the scab and poke around. His take appears to be “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and maybe he has a point.
The characters of DOWN UNDER are constructed so that one group mirrors the other. Each group of men feels utterly justified in the rightness of their cause. Forsythe draws our attention to the minutiae of their homes and rituals. We see family members, look into their suburban lives and concerns; their ordinariness and humanity. Somehow these everyday folk with their in-jokes, crappy jobs and struggling families, believe that it’s okay to crack someone else’s skull because “they” are not like “us”. Not from around here. Not religious in the way we’re religious. Not part of our tribe. This is the dark reality that Forsythe doesn’t shy away from. We like these people, but they’re prepared to bash someone to justify their pride and heritage. In as much as DOWN UNDER is about race and national identity, it is also about angry men who think they have a point to prove. What it means to be a man and to stand up for your people, is a crucial motivator.
Thankfully, with all these important themes on board, DOWN UNDER is also funny. There is plenty of wordplay, slapstick and oblivious behaviour to keep us entertained. Also intermittent action, both comedic and the violent, keeps the movie pulsing along. Actor Damon Herrimen (THE LITTLE DEATH, television’s Justified) is in top form in the role of would-be-leader Jason. Rahel Romahn also makes an impact playing Nick, a man whose emotions are always on a hair trigger. David Field appears in a wonky scene that was probably supposed to come off like the “Neville Bartos/No Cash” moment in CHOPPER (2000), but just turns out weird.
DOWN UNDER tackles some difficult subjects and is the best Australian movie comedy for several years. Forsythe is to be commended for taking on controversial material and shaping it into an engaging and frequently funny movie. 88 minutes duration. (7/10)