As I hinted at above, whether or not Henri Pick wrote the book will ultimately affect very little. Sure, Rouche was fired from his job as a TV show host, but that’s also largely due to him offending Pick’s widow with his on-air behaviour. Consequently, the script subtly distinguishes itself from other detective fiction, focusing less on the who and why and more on the how, given the holes in Rouche’s argument. It’s a smart change that ensures the audience still constantly asks questions like you’d expect in this genre, just different ones, all the while building up the enigma of its titular character.
I love a good mystery, so I was delighted to see the film transform into an investigation in its second and third acts as Rouche teams up with Pick’s daughter Joséphine (Camille Cottin). Although their antagonistic relationship eventually turns to friendship, the pair’s constant back-and-forth quips are a highlight of the film. Luchini as Rouche is the standout among the cast, with comedic timing and expressions perfect for the absurd scenes the writers clearly love putting him in. For instance, Luchini’s wide-eyed, incredulous fear during an interview with a macabre-obsessed book club makes a discussion of dismembering corpses quietly hilarious. However, Cottin’s Joséphine keeps the film grounded, reminding the audience just how painful it can be to have your memory of a loved one challenged. Films have taught me that detectives always work best in pairs, from Holmes and Watson, to Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig, and THE MYSTERY OF HENRI PICK provides further proof.
Unfortunately, I found the first act slightly unfocused, even introducing Rouche then forgetting him for an extended period; as a result, his sudden transition into the protagonist role was initially jarring. It’s also not overly difficult to solve the film’s central mystery, though the writers do include some engaging red herrings which almost dissuaded me from my first (correct) theory. I suppose it depends on personal preference, but in my opinion, this genre is at its best when the audience is able to fit some or most of the pieces together, then have the characters or plot do the rest. Look no further than the gloriously dense conclusion of Knives Out for a great example of this. The answers given here are satisfying, but unsurprising.
At first glance, THE MYSTERY OF HENRI PICK reminds me of The Words, a seldom-discussed Bradley Cooper drama with a similar premise. Yet the former sets itself apart not only through its healthy doses of humour, and gorgeous shots of the peaceful French countryside, but by crafting a convincing mystery that keeps the audience curious and involved. It’s a film that reminds me of why I love classic whodunnits while managing to forge its own identity.
Writer/Director Miranda Nation’s first feature is a complex, psychological sometimes erotic thriller that worms its way into you without the aid of violence or bloodshed or obvious good guys and bad guys. Essentially, this is a four-hander where the focus on the relationships keeps shifting from Claire and Dan to Dan and Angie, to Angie and Brett, to Dan and Brett, to Claire and Brett but most importantly, to Clair and Angie. It’s a film where we are never quite certain that what we see is what we see. Sometimes that’s literal (when Claire sees small creatures crawling about that we’re pretty sure are not really there) and sometimes it’s obfuscation (when Claire sees Dan with Angie does she really see what we’re all thinking she sees?) Part of the power of this film is the uncertainty about what lies beneath the surface of the characters and the unexpectedness of how they interact with each other. When Clair orchestrates a meeting with Angie and discovers that the teenager is pregnant, she is less concerned with the possibility that Dan might be the father than she is with caring for this child that Angie seems not to want – with the unfairness of her own loss of a much wanted baby against an unborn child that seems unwanted by its young mother. It’s a tangled story where each character is vulnerable to the secrets they hold and where lines of trust and honesty are crossed in ways that might just be irreparable. But, above all, it’s a story that treats its audience with intelligence and asks us to consider how much responsibility we each take for our actions (or inactions) regardless of how much we might feel that there are explanations for the seemingly bad things we sometimes do.
The four key cast members are all terrific. Gordon, at the heart of the story, carries much of the movie with ease in a compelling and finely judged performance that, necessarily, relies more on what she communicates of the internal world of her character than it does on the externalised dialogue. But she’s not alone in the strength of the performances on the screen. DeJonge, in particular, finds the wild and dangerous edge of Angie laced with enough vulnerability to win us over to her cause. I do wonder whether the final image of Angie is a false note in an otherwise well-made film... but then again, it’s a moment that has a nice ring of truth about it, even if it does seem a little neat.
For those with local knowledge, you’ll be quick to recognise that the film is shot in and around the Victorian coastal city of Geelong and makes excellent use of both the beauty and the ugliness of its locations. In particular, the cinematography by Bonnie Elliott brings a strong, moody and at times foreboding visual sense to the film that perfectly captures the idea that Claire sees much of the world through the lens of her own camera. There’s also a great soundtrack to underscore the visuals featuring the work of the incomparable Lisa Gerard along with James Orr and Raul Sanchez.
Nation’s screenplay is a lean and elegant work that seems to provide the space within which the work of the cast and of the cinematographer do more than just bring the script to life. They are spaces that allow the actors and the crew to complete the way in which the story is told. Yes, it is sometimes slow and brooding in its telling and that might not be to everyone’s taste but, for me, the pace showed a confidence in the director knowing that this is a slow-burn of a story and deserves the right amount of time to ferment.
It's a shame that our film industry is still at a stage where it seems remiss not to point out that this is a film written and directed by a woman with many talented women in key crew roles and a powerful female-focused story. It would be nice to think that we might get to a point in the not-too-distant future where we can just focus on how good the film is, rather than the rarity of the means by which it got made.
In this story, Seth (Josh McConville) has returned from a secret mission in Myanmar where the rest of his squad – Welshy (Firass Dirani), Stretch (Juwan Sykes) and Josh (Hugh Sheridan) – were all killed and whilst Seth made it home, the bodies of his mates were left behind. The guilt and trauma he carries with him has destroyed his marriage to Sarah (Natalie Rees) and threatens his relationship with his daughter Lizzie (Jessi Robertson). When Josh’s sister, journalist Rebecca (Bonnie Sveen) starts nosing around to try find out what happened to her brother, Seth’s Commanding Officer Michelle Pennyshaw (Rena Owen) tries to scare her off, but Rebecca won’t take no for an answer and tracks Seth down. So begins a strained, uneasy relationship that slowly draws out the truth that Seth is trying to hide from himself as much as he’s trying to keep it from Rebecca.
This is such a sensitive and important issue and Ashwood’s chosen to play the manifestation of Seth’s declining mental health at the extreme edges with vivid hallucinations and debilitating flashbacks and more than one attempt at suicide. For the most part this works as a powerful rendering of the pain and suffering soldiers like Seth experience, even if it sometimes threatens to go over the top into melodrama. It’s a hard call as to where to draw the line.
As the story of what happened in Myanmar is slowly told by Seth we’re transported into a series of memories of the squad in the jungle and the incidents that led to the deaths. As well staged and executed as these scenes are, it’s sometimes hard not to find parallels with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) as they trudge through the jungle in search of Carl Boddi (Steve Le Marquand) a fellow soldier who’s gone rogue and fallen in with the local rebels as (in his own words) a kind of god. Their mission to locate and kill him sounds more than vaguely familiar and is an unnecessary distraction from what is otherwise a good story.
What works best in this film, though, are the strong performances. McConville (who was so good in 2018’s 1% ) pulls off the difficult task of playing such a shattered character. Sveen is believable as the grieving sister determined to learn the truth and bring her brother home and the two of them work well in the push-me-pull- you balance of a relationship that is on the knife edge between a strong attraction and a terrible truth. Sheridan (in flashbacks) is equally good as Josh who looks up to Seth like an older brother. When the truth is finally revealed, the relationship between both the actors and their characters is what keeps things from becoming overplayed. Jessi Robertson also delivers a great performance as the daughter who is older and wiser and more forgiving than her years but Owen as Pennyshaw and Rees as Seth’s wife are both wasted talents in roles that are underwritten and two dimensional.
The film is well shot by Wade Muller finding the right tonal differentiation between the scenes in Myanmar and the scenes at home and the special effects by Clint Ingram bring a good dose of realism to the scenes of conflict.
Escape and Evasion makes a good fist of telling a story that is timely and important and whilst the writing sometimes lets it down, the performances carry the story across the weaknesses to deliver a film that’s certainly worth a look.
Jack Cunningham (Affleck) is an aimless man, stuck in a dead-end construction job and isolated from his family. The film wastes no time establishing his dependence on alcohol: there’s an esky in the backseat of his truck after work every day, followed by trips to the local dive bar at night. Having been a basketball prodigy in his youth, Jack is approached by his old high school to coach their struggling team. He accepts, seemingly because he has nothing to lose. You might assume this leads to a cliched story about the coach and team each helping the other get back on their feet, but THE WAY BACK subtly subverted my expectations.
Bad Ingelsby’s script essentially blends two depictions of alcoholism I’ve seen on screen before: the showy powderkeg, and the sneak. While Jack’s friends and family do see him drink until an angry outburst (or becoming paralytic), he’s also the kind of guy who hides drinks in keep cups and empty sodas just to get up in the morning. It’s a confronting choice that feels influenced by the actor portraying him, as Affleck’s hulking frame and macho posturing made me genuinely afraid for the other characters in his moments of rage. Simultaneously, he’s been vocal about his real-life struggles with alcoholism and brings a sense of resignation to the film’s quieter moments, like Jack drinking in the shower. There’s something heartbreaking about seeing such a well-known face glazy-eyed and permanently puffy from a hangover, fixed in an utterly indifferent expression. Although most of Affleck’s career plaudits have come from writing, directing and producing, THE WAY BACK is a reminder of his acting talent.
Jack similarly anchors the other half of the film: the rookie coach turned reluctant role model. It helps that the basketball sequences are energetic and well-shot anyway, but Affleck’s red-faced yelling perfectly conveys his love of the game through a full gamut of emotions, from joy to frustration and makes it easy for the audience to invest. Honestly, from this point I expected THE WAY BACK to find its groove as a heart-warming moral about recovery; in fact, Jack isn’t even shown drinking for most of the second act. This makes it all the more surprising and effective when the story provides context for his depression. It’s a devastating backstory which I won’t spoil, and makes sense given what we know about the character instead of feeling like cheap emotional manipulation.
Unfortunately, the script spends so much time developing its lead that the rest of the film is somewhat vague. The supporting cast aren’t given arcs or many lines apart from Javina Gavankar as Jack’s estranged wife Angela; some of the players in his team are basically glorified extras. No one is outright bad per se and perhaps exploring everyone’s motivations would’ve felt too similar to a straightforward sports drama, though I still felt this was a missed opportunity to establish the audience’s connection with them. There are still elements beyond Affleck that I enjoyed, particularly Rob Simonsen’s beautiful piano-driven score which produces a new, equally memorable motif for each of Jack’s moods and struggles. Overall though, I can’t help but wonder if THE WAY BACK would’ve had more to say about addiction if it didn’t rely on its star being so compelling.
I see THE WAY BACK as simple filmmaking done well. It’s thoughtfully directed, has an emotional story and features a career-highlight performance from a Hollywood darling, all of which will surely make it easy to rewatch. Despite it failing to escape some of the sports drama clichés you’d expect, its twists set it apart as an engaging character study.