Will future historians of cinema ever inadvertently confuse John Heyer's The Back of Beyond (1954) with the Paul Mercurio vehicle Back of Beyond? The prospect is doubtful, for the two movies can be easily distinguished. While the former is among the very best films made in Australia, the latter is among the very worst.
There was perhaps one promising element in the initial mix of this project. Four characters in a deserted, outback landscape, joined by complex, shifting threads of deceit, desire and crime: the premise evokes taut, inventive, psychological thrillers such as The Hit (1984) or Delusion (1990).
So we have the melancholic Tom (Mercurio) moping around a run-down service station, suffering endless flashbacks to the death of his sister Susan (Rebekah Elmaloglou). Into his barren life roars the blonde villain Connor (Colin Friels) with his lover Charlie (Dee Smart) and flunkey Nick (John Polson).
There is muttering from Connor about diamonds and cash when they reach the next town, but all that matters are those inevitable sparks that arise between Tom and Charlie – and the violent tensions that consequently explode.
This basic storyline is very weakly plotted and dramatised. And it is diluted further by a dose of supernatural fantasy which turns the film into a lame (and utterly predictable) variation on any old Twilight Zone episode. Not to mention the absurd, token inclusion of a little Aboriginal mysticism, and the hokiest personal redemption angle I have ever seen in a movie.
Nothing works here. Mercurio is an actor ill at ease in any dramatic context more demanding than the camp frippery of Strictly Ballroom (1992). It took three credited screenwriters to sculpt dialogue of a sub-soap standard. (Tom: "Why are you with him?" / Charlie: "Sex ... money".) Director Michael Robertson (The Best of Friends, 1982) sends the camera on a slow prowl around the actors in seemingly every second shot – a pointless and irritating television mannerism.
But Back of Beyond does contribute something so-bad-it's-good to the annals of Australian film. This is its ridiculous portrait of an ex-rock star named Lucky (Terry Serio), who repeatedly exits with the immortal line: "Gotta go – gotta gig".
© Adrian Martin November 1995