Primal Scenes


The political and physical facts of Rabbit-Proof Fence, Phillip Noyce’s first Australian film in 13 years, are so stunning that Noyce looks like a genius for simply getting out of their way. The 200-year-long cultural smackdown between European settlers and the eventually decimated Aboriginal society can be boiled down to systematic enslavement. What was at first supremacist opportunism—kidnapping Aboriginal children from their families “for their own good” and training them as servants—became, in the case of “half-caste” children, official state policy. This program persisted, astonishingly, into the 1970s, but Noyce’s film is set in 1931, when three girls, aged 14, 10, and eight, were snatched from their family and sent to a slave camp 1200 miles away. Indignant, they escaped, walking for months back north along the titular, continent-dividing fence, one step ahead of the law. Based on a memoir by a grown daughter of the eldest girl and rarely digressing from the journey itself, the movie is a dusty, calloused, primal Odyssey, as forceful and single-minded as a bullet train.

At the very least, it lays waste to the memory of Nicolas Roeg’s famous, hippie-dippie kids-in-the-Outback benchmark Walkabout (1971); here, Roeg’s native-mascot David Gulpilil plays the government’s near-mute wilderness tracker, hunting his countrymen despite his family’s own destruction by white power. Like last year’s Atanarjuat, Rabbit-Proof Fence is made elemental by completely unaffected amateur performances (as the three willful girls, Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury and Laura Monaghan are indelibly haunted, vigilant, and bitter) and a freshly imagined relationship with landscape. The Australian outlands, photographed by Christopher Doyle (who also shot Noyce’s other current release, The Quiet American), become a natural anvil for human suffering, and the unforgettable image of ragged children adrift in the desert is often compressed into an apocalyptic frieze traversed by Giacomettian refugees. The trio—two sisters and a cousin, named Molly, Daisy, and Gracie—are a particularly fierce variety of lost girl, and the film is compelling as a metaphoric flight from an unnatural, and unjust, maturity.

Noyce, fresh from a half-dozen of the dumbest Hollywood films of the last decade (including Patriot Games, The Saint, and The Bone Collector), lets a few unnecessary intimations of supernatural hooey leak in, and often the action isn’t developed dramatically so much as merely photographed beautifully. (The scenes featuring earnest, miscegenationist bureaucrat Kenneth Branagh managing the recovery operation feel a bit canned.) But Noyce knows that the tale naturally exudes near-mythic outrage, and all he need do is focus on the little fugitives’ battered feet and empty eyes. Climaxing with the visages of the very real Molly, age 85, and 79-year-old Daisy today, and the cold news that their children were, in turn, absconded with by the system, Rabbit-Proof Fence howls with righteous political dudgeon.

In contrast, shoestring renegade Takashi Miike has nothing to prove, and he continues to prove it with Dead or Alive: Final, just one of the five films he’s already made this year, and the third in a preposterous series of schlock-shockers connected only by their embattling stars, Sho Aikawa and Riki Takeuchi. Miike’s films commonly veer from scatological frenzy to mock-sober comatosity as if they were written and shot by accident, and the Blade Runner-derived narrative of this latest self-immolation doesn’t unfold as much as lurch, jabber, and drop unconscious like a fasting tweaker. In 2346 Yokohama (which looks exactly like the dilapidated seaside slums of Yokohama today), the population is being forced to consume a birth control drug by the region’s gay, tie-dye-wearing mayor (Richard Cheung), who loiters on rooftops with a half-naked, sax-playing stripling. His head government agent (Takeuchi), an Elvis-coiffed badass with a streak of parental anxiety, goes head-to-head with Ryô (Aikawa), a super-powered if somewhat schlubby “replicant” in a Universal Studios T-shirt, who sides with an insurrectionist cell who want to have babies. I wouldn’t call it sci-fi or, despite the intermittent kung fu, an action film. Scene-by-scene, things happen, but you’d be hard-pressed to say what or why; occasionally, a poetic moment leaps out of the soup (say, Takeuchi’s heartbroken tough guy kissing and caressing his short-circuiting replicant wife). Then, a giant robot with a penis head runs amok. You tell me.