Kiss or Kill
Australian cinema is on the road again. It’s a journalistic commonplace to point out how many recent Australian films take the form of a journey and, more specifically, are fully-fledged road movies. Through one of those strange processes of synchronicity that regularly affects film production (or distribution/exhibition), three separate contemporaneous releases take on a quite specific sub-genre of the road movie: lovers on the run, in which a criminal couple (or a small band of outsiders) heads off across the wide open landscape, with diverse interested parties, from both sides of the law, in pursuit. I’m thinking of True Love and Chaos (Stavros Kazantzidis, 1997), Heaven's Burning (Craig Lahiff, 1997) and now Kiss or Kill, both written and directed by Bill Bennett. Kiss or Kill is a very impressive movie – surprisingly impressive, I’d have to say, given that I haven’t liked any of Bennett’s previous work. For me, it’s the best Australian feature since Lawrence Johnston’s Life (1996).
We shouldn’t be too rigid in applying labels like road movie or lovers-on-the-run, because it’s easy to end up blaming a film for not meeting every supposed rule of some purely imaginary model set up in advance. The happy fact is that the road movie is a gloriously diverse and impure tradition – and Australian movies partake of this impurity, for better and for worse. There’s an art-film end of the road movie spectrum: all those plotless, wandering pieces about lost souls looking for home or identity, from Michelangelo Antonioni, Wim Wenders and Aki Kaurismäki through to some quite notable Australian films, such as Ian Pringle’s Wrong World (1985) and Esben Storm’s In Search of Anna (1978). The opposite end of the road movie spectrum is its yahoo, action-adventure side: the chase or heist film, all those Smokey and the Bandit-type comedies, and the apocalyptic Mad Max-type sagas about modern-day warriors burning rubber around some disputed, barren territory. And once you put together an idea for a road movie that mixes up intimate themes of loss, longing and personal journey with cops, robbers and criminal revenge, you’ve instantly got a stake in both ends of that spectrum.
There tends to be one big problem with chase movies, which I first noticed in the third Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The structure of chase stories tends to be rigid, linear and repetitive: you’ve got the anti-hero lovers out front, zooming down the road, and a motley crew of pursuers – violent villains, bumbling cops, concerned family members – usually two steps behind. The challenge with this kind of structure is to find ways to anticipate the next road-stop or refer back to a previous one; to cleverly interlink the various incidents and characters, rather than just have a string of episodes unwinding one after another, happening to each of the characters in turn. The episodic, picaresque, rambling, open-ended structure is what you find in art-film road movies like Monte Hellman’s masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), or the great Wim Wenders films of the 1970s, such as Alice in the Cities (1974); it works well there, but frequently not so well in any movie where the filmmaker is trying to create and sustain tension or intrigue. (Even Wenders himself has collided with this problem in his subsequent, more mainstream work.)
Kiss or Kill goes to work on this problem in a very clever way. The story is essentially about two young crooks, Al (Matt Day) and Nikki (Frances O’Connor), both of whom are an interesting mixture of grimy ordinariness and charismatic glamour. After scamming a guy in a hotel (he suddenly drops dead), these two good-looking operators hit the road, taking with them a videotape found in the dead man’s suitcase. That tape shows the Australian celebrity, an ex-sports star with the memorable name of Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe), in the middle of highly incriminating, illegal acts. So Zipper is now after our heroes, as are two cops, who thankfully aren’t the regulation bumbling cops we saw for instance in Bennett’s previous film, the woeful Two If By Sea (1996).
The trick to Kiss or Kill’s narrative is that, as various characters are encountered along the road, they start existing and interrelating in their own mysterious little story of intrigue, passion and murder. This is an Australian film where, for a change, the quirky folks at every stopover are actually interesting, compelling and enigmatic. A bold touch of soap opera is added: as when Nikki, in repeated scenes as a sleepwalker, relives a shocking primal, childhood trauma. The bottom-line is this: people keep dying and everyone suspects everyone else of doing the killing.
One of the most satisfying things about Kiss or Kill is its grasp of a theme, and how every incident or character relates to that central thematic core. Why should I make a special point of this? Don’t most movies routinely have a basic theme or subject? Alas, no – and less and less so all the time, it seems. Themes are one of the most basic elements of drama, and most stories (in whatever medium) should be very clearly organised around those themes. In point of fact, I often get tired of the very conventional way that most narrative films announce their extremely basic ideas, and then play them out in a plodding, simplistic fashion, as if they were morality fables. As a result, I find myself eagerly grasping for more unusual movies that have a very dispersed central theme, such as Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996); or secretive, hidden themes, as in David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996).
But the sad fact is that, when it comes to Australian films, we are faced with two equally grim options. Either our movies have moral-fable themes – I’m thinking of Cosi (Mark Joffe, 1996) or River Street (Tony Mahood, 1997) – that collapse down into a proverb or injunction: love one another, life goes on, forgive your folks, keep on truckin’; or else they have hardly any central animating theme at all. Our local road movies are particularly prone to this meandering, episodic, theme-less ride, where there’s nothing to give shape and resonance to individual scenes and events. There is also a third option, just as bad: in many Australian movies, there is a vague fan or array of themes – trust, family, race, sex, memory, hope – but no central core whatsoever (True Love and Chaos is an example of such all-in thematic vagueness).
Now, I don’t want a theme that can be summed up in a proverb. Real themes in fiction don’t work like that; a theme is not so much a statement as a subject or, better still, a question. (See here for a good example.) A theme is genuinely dramatised in a mosaic way: the subject is considered first from one angle, then another, and these different aspects or perspectives – often embodied in the various characters – are put into subtle relations of contrast, comparison and paradox. When you look back, in awestruck admiration, at the great classical films of the past – Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, 1947), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) or Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) – you can see this careful, complex playing-out, this embodying of the theme in actions, events and dialogue; as well as in the film’s style, in the shifting perspectives that the filmmaker takes up towards his or her material.
Kiss or Kill has a real theme. It’s the theme of never really knowing another person – even the person seemingly closest to you. It’s about that fundamental mystery, that ambiguity in human behaviour; we could call it the irreducible otherness of every other person, which can be as unsettling or frightening as it is alluring and desirable. Everything in the narrative of Kiss or Kill relates, in an ongoing, exploratory way, to this theme – and, as I’ve suggested, this basic level of satisfying dramatic organisation is rare in our national cinema. Bennett has talked in press interviews about how he tried to write it for years, how he’s lived with it and struggled to find its form; and, especially, how it sprang from the seed of a single, formative, traumatic incident: when a co-worker pulled a knife on him and, for an interminable moment, Bennett didn’t know whether the gesture was a joke or deadly serious.
So the plot of Kiss and Kill, from its opening comic scenes of Al and Nikki scamming the oily businessman, constantly foregrounds a certain theatrical performance of self in everyday life – except that, as in the films of Robert Altman, this role-play tends to obscure more about people than it reveals; masquerade only prolongs the psychological mystery. The only part of this film that rang false for me was an unnecessary voice-over narration in the penultimate scene, where Nikki laboriously spells out the central thematic concerns in the purplest of prose. The final scene, however, gets the movie back on track.
The style that Bennett has used for Kiss and Kill is bold, intricate and effective – best of all, it’s consistent and systematic from start to end (another rarity in Australian cinema). He employs a particularly nervy and frenetic form of jump-cutting that keeps taking us from the very start and to the very end of inessential actions: people getting out of cars, eating meals, reading newspapers … All that kind of thing is skipped in a blink, so that the movie becomes an unbroken chain of vivid moments. For added fragmentation, Bennett uses bits of different takes from slightly different angles, throwing strict visual continuity to the wind. Of course, this is not exactly a new procedure: films from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) have used it just as extensively – and Alain Resnais’ brilliant Muriel (1963) already took the extreme-condensation-of-essentials experiment to its absolute limit 34 years previously.
What makes the visual style in Kiss or Kill intriguing and effective, however, is the way it interacts, in a volatile combustion, with the acting style and the soundtrack. Bennett, as is well known, includes a great deal of improvisation – here, in fact, none of the dialogue was written in advance, only the action of the scenes. As in the early, independent work of Nick Gomez (Drowning Mona, 2000), Bennett deliberately uses his editing to extract the purest, most intense moments of such on-the-fly exchanges, meanwhile pushing his visual style toward a type of expressionistic action painting: all movement and sudden breaks, swirls and spirals of emotion.
In a particularly inspired twist, Bennett clearly decided that, whatever control or continuity he lost in the acting and framing, he was going to restore in the sound. Every moment of Kiss or Kill, every word and sound effect, is post-synchronised. The moody, disquieting calmness and consistency of Kiss or Kill on this aural plane is further clinched by the fact that it is one of the few films that has absolutely no composed musical score whatsoever; only the low hum or quiet wall of noise that comes with the rendering of rooms, landscapes and machinery. This integrated stylistic ensemble of image and sound is an enormous success; only the occasional intrusion of some murky lighting in a few key scenes jars our involvement, as if Bennett and his cinematographer Malcolm McCulloch fitfully aimed for an Aussie B movie variant on the classic American noir look.
The mixture of an international style and theme (the sexy-violent mystery-thriller lovers-on-the-run combo) with a recognisably laconic Australian humour and sense of social observation works for me in Kiss or Kill – where it has rarely worked before. Even the inclusion of an Aboriginal tracker, introduced in the middle of the investigation, registers not as the usual token, politically correct nod toward multiculturalism, but something that works in its own funny and exciting terms.
Kiss or Kill is a local movie that we don’t have to talk up with special pleading or precious, protective analysis. That’s a welcome change in the Australian film scene – as well as a sturdy sign of life.
© Adrian Martin July 1997