It tells us something about Australian identity that so many of our favourite cultural heroes are outlaws: thieves, bandits, cop killers. Our mythology is littered with violent rebels who take up arms against law and order. From Ned Kelly to Mark ‘Chopper’ Read, the criminal has long been a figure of national adoration.For more on this topic and the representation of Read in particular, see Kenta McGrath, ‘Legacy of a Law-breaker: Andrew Dominik’s Chopper Turns Twenty’, Metro, no. 203, 2020, pp. 108-13.
Perhaps our attraction to such figures harks back to the early penal colonies, and the convict’s desire for freedom from a brutal police state. Perhaps it harks back further still to Irish and Scottish dreams of uprising against English domination. Or, perhaps, it has more to do with the vast geographical expanse of Australia itself – with the possibility that entails of disappearing into the outback, beyond the frontiers and out of the reach of state control. Either way, it’s fair to say that criminal protagonists’ violent indiscretions on screen tend to be granted a lot more slack than they would be in the real world.
One way to increase the moral leeway offered these violent men – for they are almost always men – is to add a child to the mix. The pairing of the child (whose vision is innocent) with the outlaw rebel (who sees things ‘differently’ to the law) helps us to look past the armed robberies and killings and to, like them, see the outlaw for who they ‘truly’ are: a free spirit, a seeker, just trying to live in their own way. In the child’s eyes, the outlaw’s crimes become juvenile escapades, kidnappers become friends and going into hiding becomes an adventure, even if in the end the outlaw is martyred and the State prevails.
Moon Rock for Monday (Kurt Martin, 2020) follows this beat without a misstep. It is a hyper-explicit realisation of a colonial archetypal pattern; indeed, in its commitment to the outlaw fantasy, the film is almost a parody of the freedom mythology it espouses. So emphatically does it celebrate and apologise for its criminal protagonist, so constantly does it insist on a childlike vision of his crimes, that by halfway into Martin’s film one could be forgiven for forgetting the protagonist has done anything wrong to begin with. Instead, it is the police pursuit of the film’s outlaw hero that is portrayed as the real injustice – which is somewhat perplexing, given that our hero has killed a police officer, taken a child hostage and fled to central Australia in a stolen car.
The film starts off well enough. It begins in Sydney, in 1999: Tyler (George Pullar) is a young man – homeless, troubled, but also very charming – whose robbery of a jewellery store rapidly turns into a shootout with police. Having killed an officer in the firefight, Tyler finds a means to escape, making his way to the Sydney Metro. On the platform, he instantly sees his opportunity to evade police: a nine-year-old girl, Monday (Ashlyn Louden-Gamble), who chases her white rabbit onto a train while her father, Bob (Aaron Jeffery), is distracted at a milkshake stand. As other commuters look on, Tyler casually accompanies her into the carriage.
It’s a contrived but nevertheless dramatic set-up. The scene of the vulnerable child – who is homeschooled, extraordinarily trusting and suffering from a rare autoimmune disease – walking alone onto a train plays out in an understated manner, capturing the quiet way in which lives can be altered in an instant. But the sequence is suspenseful, too: Bob’s abrupt and total helplessness on the platform resonates with the feeling any parent would have witnessing their child career off into the distance, while the initial uncertainties around Tyler’s robbery and shooting make it unclear what level of threat he poses to Monday and how much we are to fear for her safety. There is, to put it simply, every reason at this point to expect her to be the subject of a tense and thrilling chase.
I should note at this point that writer-director Martin shows remarkable talent in using visual language to establish his story in Moon Rock for Monday’s opening minutes, which unfold primarily through images rather than dialogue. The techniques Martin employs here are impressive: through a combination of point-of-view shots and sophisticated decoupage across scenes, he places the viewer in Monday’s position and establishes her experience as the window through which the events of the film will be seen. So when the narrative does tip into crisis on the station platform, it does so from the perspective of a child’s state of innocence and stability. For the audience, there is no telling at this moment where things will go.
But, very soon, an essential problem with the film emerges: Martin may be a very talented film director, but as a screenwriter he leaves a lot to be desired – indeed, rarely have I seen a film in which the screenplay stands out so awkwardly from what is, in many other respects, a quite likeable and impressive work. The dialogue is bizarrely unfocused at times, most notably in Tyler’s meandering monologues; the same discussions are had over and over again; but, more fundamentally, the screenplay’s awkwardness affects the story’s emotional tone, which jumps back and forth between lighthearted, angsty, deadly serious, despairing, quirky and sentimental. As a narrative whole, it makes no emotional sense.
Soon after Tyler gets off the train with Monday, he steals a cool vintage car – and an atmosphere of adventure kicks in, with the desperation of the narrative set-up inexplicably transposed into a feel-good buddy movie. The two hit the road to a soundtrack of 1990s Powderfinger songs and dance music, their car banter and encounters with various loveable eccentrics along the way contributing to the upbeat mood. For what it’s worth, the relationship that develops between Monday and Tyler is a lovely one, coming through convincingly in Louden-Gamble’s and Pullar’s performances. Monday becomes Tyler’s opportunity to show how caring he is, how funny and kind. Turns out he’s not a bad guy at all! Soon enough, his escape from the police becomes recontextualised as a journey to save Monday’s life. She tells Tyler of her belief, conveyed to her by her mother before she died, that she needs to get to the ‘Moon Rock’ (aka Uluru) to be cured, and Tyler’s purpose becomes to get her there.
Meanwhile, the police pursuit, led by Detective Lionell (played in truly cantankerous fashion by David Field), is portrayed as something inept, corrupt and mean-spirited. Their concern to find and arrest the culprit responsible for the death of their colleague and rescue a child is presented as something almost secondary, as if their main incentive to catch Tyler is simply to live up to their reputation as bastards. Worse still, in the scenes featuring Monday’s father, who tries to rescue his daughter but has a run of dreadful luck, the tone becomes unintentionally comical. The dire seriousness of the father’s pursuit clashes entirely with the kids’ whimsical road trip. Wrongfully arrested by police, Bob is seen weeping for his daughter in a prison cell; we then cut back to Monday and Tyler’s mixtape singalong.
Through these stylistic and narrative choices, Moon Rock for Monday must constitute the most extraordinarily biased case of big-screen Australian outlaw worship I have seen. Martin is so enamoured of his protagonist that he seems to have forgotten that he has involved his audience in a hostage situation with a terminally ill nine-year-old girl. Even when Tyler does steal or become violent, the film’s forgiveness for his behaviour is almost instantaneous. When he tries to steal medicine, the young woman in the shop is won over by his smile and gives him the stuff for free. When he beats a man and steals his car, Monday merely gives him the silent treatment for a while. Instead, the bond between the two leads (and their opening up to each other’s personal pains and dreams) entirely submerges the dramatic tension the film initially set up with its opening murder, abduction and escape. Thus, when Monday is finally rescued by her father and Tyler is gunned down in the street – by a crooked cop, of course – there’s little room for any relief over the resolution. After all the good times with Tyler, viewers might be forgiven for feeling Monday didn’t really need rescuing at all.
Perhaps I am in the minority here. Perhaps Tyler, a young ‘unfortunate’ who ‘just happens’ to kill a cop in a moment of desperation, is a hero worth rooting for. Perhaps the heart he increasingly shows with Monday negates the objections one might feel towards his predilections for violence and theft. Perhaps Tyler is just one of those kids who has been let down in the past, and just needs some understanding. Perhaps Moon Rock for Monday is a film about what that understanding looks like – specifically, through the eyes of a child.
But this is not a children’s film. It is a film that aspires to an adult level of drama, albeit with an adolescent level of responsibility. The rationalisation for its approach may be that it is aiming for something sweet and kind in an age of urbane cruelty and cynicism. But then why choose a scenario with such oversights? In his screenplay, Martin relieves himself of the responsibility of considering any of the complex implications of his scenario. Rather, it seems, he just wants to crank the car stereo and portray the Australian outlaw fantasy uncritically.
It should be stressed that elements of Moon Rock for Monday are very good. In its humble ambitions and natural eccentricities, the film does radiate an Australian honesty. The farmland, bush and desert vistas are a pleasure to see; the towns (with their recurring features) remain quiet, no-nonsense affairs; and Coober Pedy is well captured as the surreal moonscape that it is. In its depictions of country and people, Moon Rock for Monday does have a genuineness about it. It does not ape Australianness in a formulaic way as so many recent productions have done. Indeed, the film could be mistaken for belonging to the period in which it is set, in the 1990s – just before Australian filmmakers became too worried about getting it wrong.
The acting is particularly good. Louden-Gamble shines, bringing a natural directness and lack of self-consciousness to her role. (This contrasts with so many child actors these days, who are directed to act like adults.) Pullar, for all the weepy emphasis of his overladen dialogue, gives everything he has. Although his part is problematic, his presence is memorable. As Bob, Jeffery also does his best to convey the pain of a parent searching for their child, despite having to play an alternatingly tragic and comic role. In small ways, maestro Field and, in another supporting role, the inherently obscure Nicholas Hope – of Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993) fame – add a great deal to the quality of the film.
So why, with all this talent and money, couldn’t the filmmakers get the screenplay right in the first place? A first-year film student could tell that the script wasn’t complete, that scenes weren’t developed, that fundamental inconsistencies weren’t worked through. Surely the makers of this film knew this. Butit seems – and this appears to reflect a broader problem in Australian script development, whether it’s down to a lack of good writers or a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude – they secured the talent and got the funding, so the production kicked into gear. They had a film to make, and … what could go wrong?
Narrative filmmaking is a complex artform that requires a significant amount of planning, structure and conceptualisation. And Moon Rock for Monday gets a lot of those elements – such as the acting, cinematography and editing – right. But Martin does not bring these elements into a coherent and successful narrative whole, and the result is that Moon Rock for Monday is uncertain of the journey it wants to take us on. No road trip will get very far without a map.
|1||For more on this topic and the representation of Read in particular, see Kenta McGrath, ‘Legacy of a Law-breaker: Andrew Dominik’s Chopper Turns Twenty’, Metro, no. 203, 2020, pp. 108-13.|