NOISE (AUSTRALIA, 2007)
All the good Christmas movies are taken. Let’s face it, given the name of this column, it would be suspect, let alone irresponsible, to suggest you revisit It’s a Wonderful Life, or A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, Scrooged, Elf, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation…and so on. Therefore, the only way to fulfill the mission statement of this series is to dig deep for titles whose only claim to being Christmas movies is that they happen to take place around Christmas, yet in all other respects are not only decidedly off the beaten path, but—you should be forewarned here—not exactly uplifting, either.
Of course, for this reviewer, a work of real excellence, no matter in what unseemly territory it trades, is an uplifting experience simply by virtue of being a unique and remarkable work of art. What uplifts us, then, is viewing great work; witnessing an exploration of life in all its messy, unresolved glory. Yes, the narrative of Noise, which won a boatload of Australian film awards, occurs during Christmas week, but one should not watch it hoping for a George Bailey-style redemption, or indeed any message about the true meaning of the holidays (other than the idea that they may also drive some people a little crazy). This is a disturbing but also strangely contemplative mystery/thriller that contains within its seemingly bleak view a burning hope for an end to man’s inhumanity to man, even if it offers up no immediate belief that such a shift in consciousness is likely to occur in our species anytime soon.
Shot in gorgeous nighttime shades of blue, umber and black by cinematographer László Baranyai and directed with a wonderfully assured combination of remove and engagement by Matthew Saville in his feature debut, Noise never gives us the luxury of being on totally firm ground. Even the shocking incident that opens the film (a multiple murder on a commuter train) concerns itself with the aftermath, with the emotional toll the event will take on Lavinia, the sole survivor of the attack (played with grace and understated sensitivity by Maia Thomas). Saville’s original screenplay asks us to consider the kinds of violence that are outgrowths of our own troubled minds, and so the better part of the story examines people’s attempts to connect amid the din and hum.
Said people are those touched directly and indirectly by the train attack, as well as by one more, possibly random, murder of a young woman in a little town not far away. The police have set up a small caravan there to take statements from any locals who may have information about the dead girl. It is not a sought-after duty, and well-known Australian actor Brendan Cowell plays young Constable Graham McGahan, a disaffected sad sack who is assigned to the caravan gig after his long bout with tinnitus (ringing in the ear) caused him to literally fall down on the job. (His affliction is, of course, the source of much of the film’s “noise,” although other more obvious machine sounds, and the cumulative chatter of our inner psyches, are both implied in the title as well.) Bored and resentful, McGahan nonetheless slowly gets caught up in the after-hours world of his caravan shift, coming to know the boyfriend of the slain girl, along with a menacing local hoodlum given to venting racist diatribes, and a mentally-challenged local boy named Lucky Phil (Simon Laherty), who is written off as ineffectual, although we are given cryptic hints that this may not be the case. At the same time, Lavinia tries to cope with the trauma of witnessing the train killings, and knowing that their perpetrator is still at large and possibly stalking her.
Cowell is perfectly cast as Graham, the sad sack with untapped worlds roiling inside him—you cannot take your eyes off this everyman face, and that is another crucial element in what makes this film so compelling. His quietly anguished speech about how we each spend eternity in whatever mindset our brain is in during the seconds after our death deftly underpins his character, as well as the film’s outlook. A scene (utilizing very effective sound design) in which Graham panics while telling his girlfriend–and fellow cop–Caitlin (Katie Wall) that for a moment he can no longer hear anything is superbly realized, and another, more obvious example of how the film keeps us off-balance throughout. Bryony Marks’ original music also provides a not-quite there undercurrent that works well with the film’s themes. Speaking of music, Caitlin also sings in the police Christmas choir, and her televised evening of carols plays a pivotal role in the frightening, suspenseful and poignant climax. As mentioned at the outset, this is a film about our ultimate inability to know much of anything, so let’s just say if you like tidy endings, you will go to bed unhappy.
If all of this seems elliptical and tough to categorize, it is. Many of the best films are exactly that, of course. And Mr. Saville’s picture is one of the most unique and uncompromising debut features to come along in quite a while. If you agree that superlative work is its own reward, then Noise, although it concerns itself with troubling subject matter, just might be the feel-good holiday movie of the year.
Read more Best Film You’ve Never Seen reviews here.