Published on May 9th, 2007 | by Hans Fruck0
Noise — Fruck vs. Ubaldi
This week Hans and Simone square-off and offer different perspectives on new Australian film Noise.
From its brilliantly conceived and shot opening to its riveting climax, Australian film Noise is a tour de force. The debut feature of director Mathew Saville, Noise tells the story of Constable Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell). McGahan suffers chronic tinnitus (ringing ears), and when he keels over and faints on the beat after a severe attack, he’s grudgingly placed on “light” duty. This means manning a police information caravan in Melbourne’s outer suburbs where a young woman has been brutally murdered in an attack that may, or may not, be connected to a recent multiple murder.
The story takes some detours involving, among others, McGahan’s girlfriend; an eyewitness to the multiple murder; the fiancé of the murdered woman; and an intellectually handicapped boy who loiters around the police caravan. A measure of the script’s quality is that each of these secondary characters is more than a stereotype or plot mechanism. Rather, script and cast conspire to flesh them out with believably idiosyncratic touches.
Despite his large cast of characters, Saville keeps the film admirably focussed, controlling its pace and never losing sight of his main narrative thread. It’s an impressive storytelling feat. Equally impressive is the way Noise seamlessly shifts dramatic gears. At times the dread is excruciating, recalling another great but disturbing Australian film, The Boys. At other times, Saville and his cast effortlessly mine the smartarse dialogue for laughs between unhesitating shifts into high drama.
The secret to this fancy footwork is the performance of Cowell, which is nothing short of extraordinary. When he first slouches into the story, McGahan is disaffected and lost, his chronic tinnitus a metaphor for his disconnection. In fact, he’s so phlegmatic he seems impervious to nuance or feelings sharp enough to scar. But as the film unspools, Cowell, without losing McGahan’s laidback demeanour, shifts between sadness, humour, fear, and anger with ease, and the film follows him.
The key to Cowell’s performance, and one of the film’s main attractions, is the language. The dialogue is awash with ocker intonations and idiom. It’s thick with slang and casual profanity, such as “red hot go”, “shithead”, “fuck knuckle” and “fuckwit”. An interview between McGahan and a combustible local man best illustrates this; their rat-a-tat verbal sparing teeters on the brink of confrontation – it’s ugly but exhilarating.
Technically, Noise is accomplished. It’s a sparsely scored film – intentionally so. This gives its effects people a chance to populate the film with the sounds – cracklingly real, muffled, or echoey – of Melbourne as heard through the ears of a tinnitus sufferer. It also means that when the score does swell over the action its effect is multiplied tenfold.
Above all, Noise strives to capture the sights, sounds, and people of a particular place. This place. And there’s a thrill of recognition in seeing Melbourne on screen – from the old, grotty Met carriages to the brick veneer of the outer-middle suburbs and their cluttered, cheaply furnished interiors. This isn’t an American film in an Australian get-up. It’s an Australian story told with Australian voices.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the Australiana is occasionally too strident. But there can be truth in stridency. It’s possible to capture something by concentrating it. And that’s exactly what Noise has done. It’s the best film I’ve seen in years.
It’s difficult to be sure that a negative report on a popular film isn’t fuelled by a wilfully contrary spirit. It’s also hard to be pleasantly surprised by a fervently celebrated film, drowning even before its release in a tide of effusive praise. Judge for yourself, by all means, but accept my assurance that I am a victim of hopeful enthusiasm and not spiteful snobbery. And from where I’m standing, Noise is a good film but by no means a great one. Its merits are undeniable, sure, but its flaws are pretty serious.
Like Hans here, I am awed and inspired by Brendan Cowell’s unique voice, his laconic graces and his razor-sharp timing. I am impressed by the technical accomplishment of the sound department and the cinematography, both elements used with ferocious precision to communicate and underscore the themes and narrative thrust of the film. I am satisfied by the character development, and the subtle strength of the supporting cast. Like Hans, I enjoy seeing my home town on the big screen.
Where, then, can the film falter? Well, at the script, evidently. At the plot. At the only point where a perfect execution can possibly go wrong. Noise suffers from obvious and awkward contrivance. Not once, not twice, but repeatedly throughout the film we are forced to reconcile flagrantly unlikely coincidence, brazenly artificial behaviour and totally illogical narrative facts with the great and convincing quality of their delivery. And each time we are offered these flights of fancy, it is to fuel a moment of heightened dramatic tension – to make the film move. So in effect, a wonderfully conceived sonic universe and a reasonably interesting group of characters are hitched to the trundling gimmicks of a Logie-quality cop thriller.
Would a diabetic fail to mention at a crucial moment that she was asking for her bag because she needed her insulin? This equates to the much-derided daytime TV phone call in which an accused but clearly innocent person says “just let me explain” rather than actually explaining. Would the Victorian Police Headquarters have only one female visitor a day? Possibly. But would they ask a witness to mass murder to write her name and address in a ‘visitor’s guestbook’ which the suspected murderer is later asked to sign? I called the Victorian Police Headquarters, who assured me that not only would a witness’ personal details be kept under strict and calculated guard, but that they don’t actually have a guestbook, per se. They use computers for that sort of thing.
Perhaps most aggravating, our would-be psychopath presents himself to the very police surveillance unit that has been set up to find him and all but tap-dances in his efforts to draw attention to himself. Our deafly heroic copper, undoubtedly quick-witted if a little uncaring, fails to notice. These problems, and the eternal problem of the vague inauthenticity of the Australian working-class idiom as presented by educated, middle-class artists, are what make Noise a little ordinary. By comparison to the great lumbering mediocrity of the vast majority of contemporary Australian cinema, there is much here to celebrate, and certainly much worth paying to see. But it ain’t Citizen Kane.