Thanks to a few oddball decisions (some made by people connected with his first film) Roger Donaldson’s second feature film, 1981’s Smash Palace almost didn’t get made. I’ll let you go check out the excellent making of feature on the Arrow Academy disc for the full story, but let’s just say everything worked out in the end and we have a strong followup to Sleeping Dogs to chat about for a spell. Donaldson’s film is a wrenching, raw look at a marriage fallen apart thanks to a lack of communication and what happens when decisions made by the adults in the room spiral past the point of reasonable discourse.
Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence), a former race car driver looking to restart his career is married to Jacqui (Anna Marie Monticelli), a former nurse he met while recuperating in France after an accident that took him off the track. They eventually wed and moved to a remote spot in New Zealand where Al runs the titular wrecking company. Jacqui despises the run-down location and dull (to her) lifestyle, berating Al for not taking a solid ongoing offer to sell the business. Despite the tension, love for couple’s daughter, Georgina (Greer Robson), or Georgie, keeps things mostly in check. Unfortunately, Al’s best friend, local cop Ray Foley (Keith Aberdein) catches Jacqui’s eye and ear (Al talks a lot, but tends to ignore his wife because he’s happy in his work) and the two get romantically involved. When Al discovers this, he lashes out (in a hard to watch scene) and yes, Jacqui leaves him for Ray, taking Georgie with her.
(Thanks, Arrow Academy!)
Things go sideways and downhill from that point on even though Al gets back on the race track with a car he spent a year building. Recklessly, he makes a series of somewhat terrible decisions, some of which where his hand is forced and others where he just reacts out of pure but flawed human instinct.
Al so desperately wants to see Georgie that he swings by and takes her hunting without telling Jacqui, who responds by getting a court order that’s supposed to keep Al away from them. Al stubbornly fails to appear in court to defend himself and ends up getting so outraged at the results that he kidnaps Georgie at gunpoint, stages an accident to throw off the police and spirits his daughter off into the bush, guaranteeing himself most wanted status. The thing is, Lawrence is so damn good as Bruno that it’s hard not to feel some sympathy and empathy for some of his less bestial actions.
Next to Georgie’s pure innocence, if there’s a moral core to the film, it’s in Desmond Kelly’s character, Tiny, a tall, dirty coverall-wearing mechanic whom both Al and Jacqui confide in at different points. In a way, both take him for granted at their loss. Jacqui notes earlier that she doesn’t like the smell of mechanics and Al refuses to take Tiny with him into the bush because he’s “too slow.” Granted, by that point, Al is too far gone to stop, but you kind of have to wonder if a more even-handed influence may have made a difference. You also get a hot minute to see where Ray’s failings push things along. He didn’t have to fall for Jacqui, yet he does and has to put up with the results of Al’s irrational outbursts including a great hilarious and disturbing scene where Al strips off all his clothes and shoves them through a mail slot.
The film isn’t all an unbalanced Al doing his thing, though. After getting arrested for doing something quite unexpected (yet in a way, expected), Al has a bittersweet flashback that shows his father’s funeral and Georgina’s birth (yes, that’s a an actual birth scene). He seems calmer as he’s let out of jail, but a cop who’s not Ray and a few pals assault Al after his release and this incident, coupled with the results of Al not showing up to challenge that order of protection set him off into kidnap mode. In all the madness that follows, Al and Georgie share a pure, lovely bonding moment on her birthday before the walls close in.
The interesting thing is the film doesn’t go where you think it’s headed, yet manages to keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end. I’ll say nothing about the ending other than you’ll love it or hate it and it makes for quite a conversation piece if you see this film with a group divided on whether or not Al’s actions were at all logical. Or hell, anyone else’s actions for that matter. In short, when people fail to communicate, often nasty things take place. Ain’t love grand? Well, not necessarily all the time, folks. This is one of those films that crawls up into your head and finds the place it needs to settle before flaying a few nerves raw with its sharp little knives.
While written, produced and directed by Donaldson, he notes in the making of doc that he ended up crediting Lawrence’s work as a writer because he rewrote and reworked so much of the film through his performance. You’ll root for Al, hate him at points and maybe even see some things from his distorted point of view. He loves his daughter, seems to still love his wife, but is confused as to why his best friend would betray him (although he seems to accept “anyone but Ray!” at one point as if he’s resigned to that as an option/excuse for Jacqui’s infidelity). It’s mesmerizing work and the rest of the cast does a superb job as they’re caught up in the storm Al whips up.
Hey – you’re still here? Well, good. This is the second of two entries in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN Blogathon hosted by Debbie over at Moon in Gemini. Yep, this one’s a few days early as well, but that means I’m still breathing (which is also good). Go poke around on the Debster’s site say, around November 16 to see and read more first-timers tackling their choices, as it’s guaranteed to be a blogathon packed with interesting takes on classics, almost classics and perhaps even not-so classics from a few different perspectives.
-Review disc provided by Arrow Academy
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This one sounds like it’s a bit less in my wheel house, but still very intriguing! Thanks again for contributing these two articles to the blogathon. I like several of Donaldson’s later films, but looks like I need to catch up on his earlier work now.