The King is Dead! ***1/2

There’s a long, great history of films (and books, television programs, and all many of mediums) depicting loving husband-and-wife teams in perilous situations. Unlike romantic comedies (since the leads are already romantically entwined when the movie begins), these are essentially genre films, where the role of protagonist is split, or rather, united into a married couple. My favourites are the Thin Man movies, with William Powell and Myrna Loy as the most loving (and fun-loving) crime-fighters ever, but there are many examples: Fun With Dick and Jane (both versions are good), Mr. and Mrs. Smith, True Lies, True Romance and Pacific Heights spring to mind.

South Australia’s great, idiosyncratic, fiercely independent and always original filmmaker Rolf de Heer’s fifteenth feature film, The King is Dead! (the exclamation mark is deliberate, like everything de Heer puts his hand to) features Bojana Novakovic and Dan Wyllie as Therese and Max, two Adelaide yuppies (I know, that word sounds so dated, but that’s precisely what they are, as well as “dinks”) who purchase a lovely federation home on a tree-lined street at the beginning of the film. They quickly become aware of their neighbours: on one side, the perfect young family of three, and on the other, a dim-witted, uncouth, drug-and-booze-addled headcase known as King (Gary Waddell, excellent) whose extremely loud, uncouth, rancid, ratty, drug-dealing mates dominate his house night and day, effectively terrifying the neighbourhood. Therese and Max both pride themselves on being tolerant and patient, but the hell of next door only increases, and something’s got to happen. This is a film, after all.

You think you know where this is all headed, and you may be partially right, but the journey is rich, diverting, and much more surprising than you might guess. De Heer, shooting in his own Adelaide home and the houses on either side of him (!), has more than just “Lord of the Flies in Suburbia” in mind. Unlike a lot of American films, where a family under threat fights violence with extreme violence for gruesome thrills (there are so many of them, such as Fear and last year’s Nicholas Cage / Nicole Kidman turkey Trespass), the married couple here, very amusingly (the film’s tone is essentially one of very black comedy) have to work through – to fight through – their own self-imposed senses of decency, ethics and simple modern manners to arrive at any sort of action to remedy their situation. Eating healthy home-cooked dinners and never without a bottle of red wine, this is the intellectual, liberal, do-good, perfect couple struggling to find their inner beast – and failing miserably.

Novakovic (who is proving to be not just a very good but a greatactress, one of subtlety and depth) and Wyllie are terrific together, completely believable as this particular couple, full of small, intimate gestures that are so subtle as to inform the viewer’s understanding of them, their love and their world, in a subconscious manner. Their interplay is warm and it warms us too, even as the tale gets increasingly cold. Not that they are saints: de Heer’s script certainly holds them (and, assumedly, us, as I suspect the audience here will only relate to this side of the fence) up to the mirror. Likewise, the villains of the piece have many sides: everyone is a human being. De Heer isn’t interested in satisfying our primal urges; as always, he wants to tell a multi-faceted, thought-provoking story that is much more intriguing than it may seem on the surface.

Rolf de Heer and Gary Waddell

De Heer has to be one of the most resourceful filmmakers on the planet. He insists on working, so, rather than spend years chasing large budgets, he’s learned to thrive on small ones. Here, he shoots in his own house, with a tiny cast, and makes the whole thing look, if not like a million bucks, then at least very good indeed. His mastery with a camera (working with regular DOP Ian Jones) means that somehow, he makes what is essentially a two-house shoot look amazing, and constantly surprising, the whole time. Classically shot, he dollies, cranes, glides, and frames in intimate detail. You’d swear he had a studio set to play with, with fly-away walls and busloads of space. Nope. He and Jones are just consummately skilled. I suspect, too, that, shooting in his own house (and assumedly having written the script there), de Heer spent a lot of time just walking around, drawing inspiration from his surroundings: “Ah ha – here would be a great shot!”

The film requires a couple of leaps of faith. The obvious answer to the couple’s predicament – sell the house – isn’t considered, which is frustrating (it could have at least been discussed then explained away rather than avoided entirely); the first ten minutes or so are a little pat and ungainly, as though the film was shot in order and it took everyone a while to find their feet (this is not only entirely possible but quite likely); and there is an element introduced in the third act that seems surprisingly obvious for a filmmaker of de Heer’s originality. But on the whole, The King is Dead!, while not as brilliant as Bad Boy Bubby or Alexandra’s Project, shares with those films a unique and perverse vision of Australian suburbia. De Heer is always bold, and here he’s bold again. The Independent King is certainly not dead.

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