If there is only one thing that Jonathan Teplitzky's Gettin' Square will be remembered for, it is surely the sight and sound of David Wenham as Spit, drug-addled and mumbling to himself, flopping into and out of scenes in his thongs.
At these moments, it doesn't matter that the plot, the editing and the music all come to a dead stop: the simple spectacle of this loveable loser dementedly walking around is a sheer joy.
Gettin' Square is easy to categorise. It all too evidently borrows from recent crime-comedies like Two Hands (1999), Sexy Beast (2001) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). But, thanks to an ingenious script by Chris Nyst (better known in his homeland as a celebrity lawyer), it also possesses an Australian – or, more specifically, Gold Coast – flavour that is quite endearing.
Wattsy (Sam Worthington) is a bloke just out of jail determined to 'get square'. He's good looking, seems decent, and is the obvious romantic attachment for the Community Corrections Officer, Annie (Freya Stafford), who is keeping an eye on Wattsy's younger brother, Joey (Luke Pegler).
But, as in many a crime film, menacing types keep trying to lure Wattsy back for one last job. A similar problem is faced by Darren (Timothy Spall), a reformed gangster who is desperately trying to make his restaurant business work, but finds himself fingered by the Criminal Investigation Commission.
Then there's Spit, who inadvertently re-introduces himself to his old mate Wattsy when he tries to hold up a gas station, wielding only a screw-driver and politely saying 'thanks' to everyone who gets out of his way. With a serious drug problem, Spit seems incapable of stringing a single, coherent sentence together, let alone collaborating in a major heist. However, the intriguing question of who knows exactly what becomes the central motor of the plot.
Among contemporaneous Australian releases, Gettin' Square may not be as exploratory or affecting as Japanese Story (2003), but it is, in its own terms, a more satisfying and better crafted piece. Teplitsky improves greatly on his debut feature, Better Than Sex (2000), and manages to hold a complicated plot together while allowing the necessary breathing space for local detail, humour and insight into the characters. Editor Ken Sallows gives a beautiful, polished shape to these diverse ingredients.
The film improves on a second viewing. Once past a few contemporary clichés – tough guy postures (mainly from Gary Sweet), the facile humour of placing gangsters in the midst of domestic scenes, some grating MTV affectations in its visual style – one can start enjoying the real strengths of the piece.
There are many enjoyable show-off moments here – like the cameo appearances by television personalities Gretel Killeen, Jonathan Biggins and Ugly Dave Gray; and an extended gag involving Spit's courtroom testimony which raises the roof with laughter.
Better than these exhibitionistic pleasures, however, is the film's ability to capture the sense of all these characters struggling through the moment-to-moment complications of their fairly ordinary lives. The story has a small-town ambience: old acquaintances keep bumping into each other at every turn, with hilarious and catastrophic consequences. And the strict diet maintained by Darren and his cheery wife, Marion (Helen Thomson), becomes every bit as absorbing and tense as any hold-up or police inquisition.
Forty years ago, the great American film critic Manny Farber proposed a deathless distinction between white elephant art, which plays safe by conventional narrative formulae, and termite art, which digs into its material in order to discover off-kilter complexities of mood, detail and personality.
In the era of Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard, the termite approach has itself become formularised as eccentricity, and largely restricted to the crime genre. Gettin' Square belongs to that tendency. But, by taking its cues from the social reality and laconic sensibility of Australian life, it reinvigorates the genre and provides splendid entertainment along the way.
© Adrian Martin October 2003