I saw two movies last weekend: The Devil’s Rejects and Australia. One is Rob Zombie’s grindhouse-style 2005 film about a family of recreational serial killers. The other is Baz Luhrmann’s latest epic love story. Yet, oddly enough, I found they had something in common: Both are less about anything real than about other movies.
Rejects is a self-conscious pastiche of ’70s horror films, aimed at an audience that reveres The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And Australia is for people who love Hollywood romance because it could never happen in real life. Although it dramatizes some historical realities — the Japanese bombing of Darwin in 1942; the colonial government’s cruel policies regarding indigenous Australians — it’s mainly a big, splashy collage of things that have only ever existed on the silver screen. There’s the prissy, proper, preachy but also plucky heroine, Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman). There’s the rough-hewn but decent hero (Hugh Jackman). There’s a brutish villain (David Wenham) who practically twirls his moustache. There’s a big-eyed, adorable half-Aboriginal kid (Brandon Walters) who narrates the film to give it a sense of child-like wonder.
Luhrmann has always been guilty of using stock characters, clichés and cornball comedy to fill what space is left by his breakneck pace and flamboyant production design. But in Strictly Ballroom he had great, unexplored subject matter; in Romeo + Juliet he had Shakespeare’s words to give weight to his love story; and in Moulin Rouge! he had a few unforgettable musical numbers.
Australia has none of these things. It doesn’t even have much of Luhrmann’s notorious MTV editing, though the story does move in strange fits and starts. When Lady Ashley arrives from England, determined to sell the outback ranch where her husband has secluded himself, the director delivers the region’s political backstory by cutting frenetically among several simultaneous conversations. Cattle baron “King” Carney (Bryan Brown) plots to take advantage of the naïve newcomer, while army officers seeking cheaper beef for their soldiers hope she can break his monopoly, and the townspeople chime in like a chorus. The whole thing plays like an ensemble musical number in search of a jaunty tune. It’s followed by a scene where Kidman meets Jackman in a slapstick bar fight, which ends with her lingerie being tossed hither and yon as she shrieks in school-marmish dismay.
Later, Australia moves into less silly and more traditionally epic territory. After a creepy sequence where Kidman arrives at the isolated ranch to find her husband’s corpse pierced by a spear, it’s time for romance. Since Jackman’s character has no name in the film but The Drover, he’s the natural choice to help her drive her husband’s cattle to the sea and break Carney’s monopoly. The film’s most kinetic scenes take place on this spectacular (but clearly CGI-assisted) cattle drive. Once it’s over, the movie might as well be. But it keeps going for an hour more, so that Luhrmann can add more romantic travails, more fake outs where a character appears to die but doesn’t and more blowing things up.
The mix might work if Kidman’s and Jackman’s characters were even slightly individualized. But Luhrmann seems to prefer icons to people. He even uses an Australian version of the so-called “magical Negro” who pops up in American movies solely to offer guidance to white characters. The Aborigine child’s grandfather is a shaman who’s always perched in some high place watching events unfold, ready to work his magic when the good guys need a deus ex machina. He’s played by David Gulpilil, who narrated Ten Canoes and has been a presence in Australian film since he showed teenaged Jenny Agutter the ways of the outback in Walkabout. In short, he serves to remind us there have been far better films about Down Under.
There’s no reason directors shouldn’t make movies that are elaborate homages to the film genres they love. But when they do it once too often — like Rob Zombie with his Halloween remake, or Luhrmann here — it starts to feel less like tribute and more like regurgitation. Here’s to something new.