So, you’ll understand if I admit that I approached Muniz’s starring role in first-time Director and Co-Screenwriter Brian Hanson’s, THE BLACK STRING with some apprehension. Little Malcolm Wikerson in a horror movie? Really? Well, yes!
Muniz is both believable and engaging in the role of Jonathan. The film jumps right in and we meet him on the run, literally – racing through the street. But is he running away from something or towards something? It’s the latter. He’s late for work and in the next moment we see him stacking shelves in a crummy liquor-cum- convenience store in a nondescript Los Angeles suburb where his boss (and best friend) is the motor-mouthed, self-promoting Eric (Blake Wood) or as he likes to refer to himself, (generally in the third person) The ERC.
Right away, there’s an unsettled sense to Jonathan. He’s nervy and lacking in self-confidence, whilst willing to be ‘pumped up’ by the ERC. At home, he avoids phone messages from his mother and instead slumps on the couch with his sketch pad and tunes into some bad TV while he draws hyper real and over-sexualised comic characters, until one of those ‘call me, call me now’ ads comes onto the screen. Did he hear that right? Did the scantily clad woman in the ad call him by name? Surely he dreamt that. Nevertheless, he calls the number and the next thing we know, he’s on a date with Dena (Chelsea Edmundson) in a low-rent Diner (where the N and the R in its Neon sign have faded out so it says DIE – should we be worried? Yes!). Back at Jonathan’s apartment, the inevitable happens (not surprising, since we assume he’s paid for it) but when he wakes the next morning, Dena is gone and a nasty little pustule has appeared on his stomach with spiderwebbing tendrils spreading beneath his skin. He’s infected with the black string.
At this point, it would be easy for a film like this to follow a well-worn path as our unwitting victim tries desperately to work out what this infection is and how he can get rid of it. To a certain extent, that is what happens, but there’s another question that becomes important to this story – why is he infected? The answer to that question isn’t as simple as reaching the conclusion that this is a knock-off of the 2014 sexually-transmitted horror movie, It Follows. There are some echoes of that movie, for sure, but there’s something else really interesting going on here.
There are two possible explanations for why this is happening to Jonathan. I don’t want to give anything away here, suffice it to say that one explanation (the more straightforward one) is to do with the occult and sees Jonathan trying to track down Dena which leads him to a house where he encounters an odd little group including a strange man in a black hat (Cullen Douglas). What he discovers here prompts him to seek help from Melinda (Mary K DeVault) a kooky medium in a crystal and spells shop who provides Jonathan with a bit of archaic information about the black string and a way of ridding himself of it. But what elevates this movie from the run- of-the-mill is the second possibility. Again, no spoilers, but that unsettling sense we had about Jonathan at the start of the movie suddenly seems to be no accident, plus we now see there’s a reason that he’s been avoiding calls from his family. There’s something dark and quite possibly violent in Jonathan’s past and he might just be a tad unstable. Is it possible that the black string only exists in his mind?
It’s around this point that some of what seemed like odd editing and storytelling choices – disjointed exposition, unexplained moments, the unexpected lapses in the narrative that make it feel like bits might have been cut out or that it’s a haphazardly assembled movie - suddenly feel like they might actually be quite clever cinematic devices.
This isn’t to suggest that the film is without its faults or that it’s going to find its way into my top ten, but it is remarkably better than the average, low budget, direct-to-DVD fare. It has original characters, very good performances and resists the temptation to provide easy explanations or overly didactic exposition. In fact, one of things I really like about this movie (something that quite possibly will irritate many filmgoers) is that there’s little more than a hint at Jonathan’s dark past – we never actually find out what he did. We just know it was bad.
All this inexorably leads to some nicely gory body trauma and a very icky scene where the black string finally appears. There’s some good moments of tension and the frustration Jonathan feels at having his claims about Dena and the Man in the Black Hat and the black string called into question is palpable and carries the film through to a very satisfying ending. It’s a shame, then, that any ambiguity in that twisty final scene is pretty much undercut in a predictable and (in my view) unnecessary post credit coda. This last minute capitulation to more derivative storytelling aside, The Black String distinguishes itself as an above average horror/thriller and gives Frankie Muniz the opportunity to show us that he’s more than just Malcolm and that he still has some fairly decent acting chops.
At the request of Luke’s parents, Aaron reluctantly agrees to reopen the investigation, off-duty, while grappling with the reason he left Kiewarra years ago: the townspeople blame him for the mysterious death of a young girl.
For me, the most striking aspect of THE DRY is its vivid depiction of rural Australian life, which stands among the greatest ever shown on film. Much like Wake in Fright did for the Outback, Connolly’s film takes the small, drought-ridden farming communities between city and desert and fills them with life and details. Massive dust devils swirl across arid paddocks, rabbits dash behind silos, mourners somehow find fresh flowers to leave on graves.
Despite being a fictional amalgamation of over a dozen towns in regional Victoria, Kiewarra is a wonderfully realised, distinctly Australian vision shared by the entire crew. From the beautiful cinematography regularly utilising expansive overhead shots of brown farmland and parched riverbeds, to the pitch-perfect location scouting and production design; is there anything more emblematic of small-town Australia than a motel with a pub and pokies on the ground floor? Each locale evokes a sense of history to the characters, which allows the town to truly feel like somewhere you might pass through on a road trip through the state.
Yet THE DRY is more than a tourism ad, as the script by Connolly and Harry Cripps imbues the citizens of Kiewarra with similar depth. Considering the traumatic events that many of the secondary characters have been through, it’s no wonder that many have given up hope by the time Aaron returns; several even ask “What are you still doing here?” throughout the course of the film. The simmering tensions and reopening of old wounds are captivating to watch, with slow burns finally erupting in the second and third acts.
The supporting cast are excellent, though in my opinion Genevieve O’Reilly and Matt Nable are the standouts. As Gretchen, an old friend of Aaron’s with a personal connection to both the recent deaths and the one from years ago, O’Reilly is given the task of filling in many of the gaps between flashback sequences, wistfully explaining the past to viewers without feeling like dull exposition. Gretchen is a welcome presence throughout the film, providing a calm foil for Aaron (until he pushes her too far), and a much needed model for how to move on with one’s life.
Meanwhile, Grant (Nable), a cousin of the girl from the earlier tragedy, is utterly consumed by his grief. Before this link is revealed to the audience, it’s easy to dismiss Grant’s snarkiness as general frustration, he’s a farmer in a town which hasn’t seen rain for a year, after all. However, he quickly becomes obsessed with reigniting the rumour of Aaron’s involvement in his cousin’s death, and driving the latter out of town. Grant often appears to be the closest thing THE DRY has to a traditional antagonist, yet Nable subtly conveys his desperation to find an explanation and resolution to his loss. In one outburst, he proclaims that Aaron has never really known him, as though the inverse of this weren’t also true.
Nevertheless, THE DRY is a showcase for Bana. He brings a stoic seriousness to Aaron suiting his methodical approach to investigations, and his past. I can’t recall Bana ever being asked to do so much without words, but he proves more than up to the task: as Aaron moves through town, running errands for Luke’s parents, following leads, or meeting with Gretchen, the viewer realises how lonely his past has made him. He’s charming, but guarded, unwilling to talk about his life beyond his relationships with the deceased. Indeed, Aaron’s ‘quiet nice guy’ demeanour is particularly brilliant as it forces the viewer to consider whether he could have an ulterior motive.
In addition to its excellent depictions of Australia, and portrayals of grief, THE DRY is incredibly satisfying as a crime drama. The notion of having to solve two cases simultaneously always reads like an engaging challenge for genre enthusiasts, and the script offers plenty of clues and red herrings for eagle-eyed viewers. Most importantly, the answers given to the audience feel fair; at the risk of giving too much away, I’ll simply say that the resolution to the case of Grant’s cousin is the perfect, emotional coda to this story.
THE DRY is the kind of film that I’m going to be amazed by for some time. It makes telling a nuanced, engaging story in a memorable setting look effortless, while allowing its cast to shine. It’s not just one of my favourite films of the year, or a highlight in Eric Bana’s filmography, but a project that Australian cinema should aspire to emulate in the future.
The majority of HOW DO YOU KNOW CHRIS? is set in or outside a dinner party at the titular character’s Melbourne apartment. It quickly becomes apparent that while there aren’t many guests, Chris (Luke Cook) has invited people from a range of settings and times in his life: there are old school mates (or rivals), colleagues, and exes, to name a few. What’s less obvious is exactly why he’s gathered them; only a handful have ever met before, and Emi (Tatiana Quaresma), the film’s co-lead, only met her host that morning.
If this claustrophobic setting and sense of mystery surrounding the lead make you think of a classic thriller, prepare to have your expectations subverted by the film’s first half. By contrast, Zachary Perez’s script makes the bold but brilliant decision to linger on the supporting characters’ introductions to each other, revelling in the awkwardness of first impressions. There are many memorable asides to be found here, such as Chris’ boss Shane (Stephen Carracher) having to explain to everyone that he was told to dress for a costume party.
However, Perez and director Ashley Harris are equal contributors to the early success of HOW DO YOU KNOW CHRIS?. Harris seems to know exactly how to punctuate each of Perez’s surreal set-ups; for instance, Dot (Lynn Gilmartin) proving she can do a handstand to someone she just met is a little funny, holding the shot longer than expected is an effective way to build on this, but continuing even further until her dress falls to reveal her underwear? That’s the beat which truly emphasises how uncomfortable these characters are in this moment. Similarly, the table tennis match between Justin (Jacob Machin) and Blucker (Dan Haberfield) is a standout sequence for its fast pace and shots from a range of angles. Harris seemingly heightens the stakes out of nowhere, once again making a point of the strange things people say and do when they’re unsure of themselves.
Hopefully, these examples don’t give the impression that HOW DO YOU KNOW CHRIS? is a comedy. Rather, Perez and Harris use them to subtly maintain tension, reminding the viewer of the uncertainty these characters feel due to their enigmatic host’s absence. They might be acting strangely, but an awkward silence would be much worse. Unfortunately, the payoff to this in the film’s second half isn’t worth the wait. Frankly, no one except Jay Gatsby himself could be as interesting as Chris has been described.
HOW DO YOU KNOW CHRIS? Opens in select Australian cinemas from 03/12/20.