In the mid '80s, celebrated Australian writer-director John Duigan spoke out strongly against the fashionable American hits of the day, Blue Velvet (1986) and River's Edge (1986). These were unpleasant, amoral films, Duigan claimed, wallowing in the spectacle of nihilism and social decline. Better to take (according to him) a highly moral and critical perspective.
No one could ever mistake one of Duigan's films for an exciting, complex, perverse, disturbing movie like River's Edge. He, like Bruce Beresford, is among Australia's most old-fashioned, orderly, worthy directors. Thrills – whether in the plot or the cinematic interplay of images and sounds – are not his strong suit.
Indeed, Duigan's movies go out of their way to be unspectacular, teacherly and morally upright – in a very '70s, old-leftie fashion.
Lawn Dogs is very far from being Duigan's worst film, but it is not exactly a turn-on either. The director brings his usual subtlety, sensitivity and quietness to a story (by Naomi Wallace) that could easily have lost all control.
Ten-year-old Devon (Mischa Barton), an idealistic dreamer with more moral fibre than her soulless, materialistic parents, strikes up an odd acquaintance with another outsider twelve years her senior, the free-living Trent (Sam Rockwell).
Duigan is fond of using extremely simplistic binary oppositions to structure his dramas. The vision of middle-American suburbia offered by Lawn Dogs resembles Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990) without the camp verve: everything is clean, trim and empty. Trent, by contrast, lives in a trailer in the woods. He's a happy-go-lucky guy, but his bouts of casual sex with a hip city girl leave him sad and confused.
Lawn Dogs portrays the same kind of social canvas evident over a decade ago in Duigan's The Year My Voice Broke (1987): the honourable characters are individualist loners, and everyone else is a faceless, knee-jerk conformist. There is a quaint nostalgia for the likes of D. H. Lawrence in this director's world-view: outsiders are sensualists, close to nature, and usually also (as in his dreadful film of Wide Sargasso Sea ) rather batty.
This mildly libertarian ethic leads to some odd, insistent motifs in Lawn Dogs – such as an ode to urinating (Trent helpfully elucidates: "Whatever you piss in is yours forever"). But, as Sirens (1994) amply showed, Duigan's Lawrentian reveries have strict limits. For instance, Trent is carefully conjured as a pansexual kind of character, free and at ease with his own masculinity. However, the suburban thug who is momentarily attracted to him is painted as the classic, villainous repressed homosexual – a character more at home in a '50s British melodrama than any contemporary work.
Duigan is in so many ways an anachronistic filmmaker – even his gratuitous swipe in Lawn Dogs at Australian film reviewer Neil Jillett hits the mark four years after that residency in The Age newspaper ceased.
But, despite irritating voice-over narration, bland images and woefully wishy-washy music, Duigan still has a fine way with actors. And there is, at the core of this story, something quite moving about the relationship between Devon and Trent.
In short, Lawn Dogs, with its heavy-handed plot devices, earnest themes and appealing characterisations, is a mixed blessing.
© Adrian Martin May 1998