The Missing

(Manuela Alberti, Australia, 1999)


There is a zany tradition of Australian films – whitefella fantasies including Back of Beyond (1995) and Dead Heart (1997) – which try to blend select elements of Aboriginal mythology with essentially American styles of horror and thriller cinema. Probably this entire, rather disreputable genre sprang fully grown from the example of Peter Weir's The Last Wave (1977).

It is easy to decry the woolly politics of such movies, which are among the most consistently ludicrous Australia has produced. But it is more fun to sit back in awe, marvelling at the surreal, inadvertently comic juxtaposition of Kurdaitcha Men, serial killers, dreamtime visions and hard-boiled lawmen.

The Missing goes one better – it plonks into the Australian wilderness a Vatican priest, Monsignor Tommaso (Fabrizio Bentivoglio). This troubled, glum chap flees from his shadowy criminal connections back home to the Aussie woman he once loved, Susan (Rebecca Frith). Their teenage daughter is missing – and that's where the serial killer enters the picture.

Bentivoglio was a bad choice for the lead. He is so inexpressive that he functions as a black hole, sucking the whole film into his nothingness. At one point, Tommaso reads in his daughter's diary: "Do I laugh like my father?" – an unfortunate question, since this guy never even smiles, let alone laughs.

Writer-director Manuela Alberti, making an inauspicious feature debut, surrounds Tommaso with much fire, brimstone and melodrama – and clumsy discussions of different religious values. As usual in movies of this ilk, the supposedly indigenous elements offer merely a new kind of deus ex machina – making the drama not only corny but insubstantial.

In many ways, The Missing is a blast from the past – specifically, those murky 10BA tax concession days of local production in the 1980s. Like many of the quickly forgotten or hardly seen films of that period, this one tries hard to ape a string of well-regarded, American thrillers.

The villain in his scary truck recalls Spielberg's Duel (1972) or Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher (1986). A glimpse of his lair evokes Kiss the Girls (1997). During an extended shot of the good Monsignor beside a wide open road on a completely flat, empty plane, one almost expects Hitchcock's cropduster from North by Northwest (1959) to glide into view.

Bruce Smeaton's oddly bombastic score takes us back still further – to the slick, hip genre films of the '60s. It doesn't manage to glue this mess of a film together, but it is certainly provides the perfect accompaniment for an artefact destined to provide gruesome entertainment for cult video aficionados in the next millennium.

© Adrian Martin November 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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