Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Restraint (2008)

Rural Australia. Violent to crazed criminal Ron (Travis Fimmel) and his stripper girlfriend Dale (Teresa Palmer), whose job in the relationship seems to be getting him out of trouble and/or provoking him via her sexuality, though things will turn out to be rather more complicated than just that, are out and about on your typical road trip crime spree. They have a corpse in their car trunk, and Ron sees fit to shoot a gas station owner dead when Dale pays for gas with a hand job, so the police is on their backs rather quickly.

By luck, they stumble upon a large country house where agoraphobic, rich upperclass layabout Andrew (Stephen Moyer) lives alone. His girlfriend is apparently visiting Europe. Once Ron has gotten over his plan to just rob Andrew and murder him, they decide to lay low in the house for a while. Andrew can’t go anywhere, after all, and there are certainly no neighbours, so this seems like as good a place to wait out trouble as possible. After a time, Andrew makes the couple an offer to pay for his life – he receives regular payments from a trust fund he can’t pick up himself thanks to his condition, so if Dale would pretend to be his fiancée, she should easily be able to pick the money up. They just can’t take all at once but have to get half the money from the bank the next day, the other half the day after, for reasons that sound reasonable enough to the couple. Still, it’s questionable everyone involved will actually live that long, for Ron’s always just a wrong word away from an outbreak of violence (usually involving the sort of homophobe undertones that do suggest he’s rather unsure of his own sexuality, though you probably shouldn’t tell him), Dale is slowly realizing what she’s truly gotten herself into, and Andrew… Well, there’s certainly something off about him too, and it’s not just the way he tends to look at Dale.

David Denneen’s Restraint is an excellent psychological thriller, dense, intelligent, clever, and effective even with those twists in the plot you rather see coming. The film bases its tension not just on the basic hostage situation, but on the fissures between and inside the characters it presents. It’s a film that’s not just interested in letting power shifts and mistrust produce a nice bit of tension for its audience (although it is pretty great at that too) but also – sometimes subtly, sometimes not – demonstrates how these ever-shifting alliances between characters are based on personalities, psychology, class and gender. In fact, one of the film’s clearest themes is how the way class works in Australia has poisoned the inner lives of its characters, trapped them in patterns of violent behaviour and obsessions they don’t really comprehend and apparently left them no way out but violence or picking exactly the wrong person to put their trust into. This, interestingly enough, goes for all classes in the film, the system destroying at least the inner lives of the rulers as much as that of the ruled, the difference being that the former are allowed to get away with things others can barely imagine.

In this context, it would have been very easy for the film to leave its three main characters as archetypes and stand-ins for their respective class. Restraint, however, opts for using actual humans, which makes its examination of power and class much less abstract and turns it into a more exciting thriller too by making the audience care about the characters. Denneen has help there from three excellent performances too: Teresa Palmer is generally brilliant even in terrible movies, and in a good one like this even more so, shifting audience perceptions of what Dale is actually about as a person with small and large gestures. Travis Fimmel is in turns threatening, charming, frightening and pathetic (sometimes at the same time), and Moyer – not an actor I’m terribly fond of – here manages to be fragile, helpless and somewhat sinister at the same time, keeping parts of Andrew hidden from the audience in a way that feels absolutely right for the character instead of merely in service of the plot. A plot that, by the way, finishes with one of the calmly nastiest endings I’ve encountered, an ending the less pleasant the longer one thinks about it.

No comments: