The macabre allure of the Australian rural has long been the inspiration for art that picks at notions of the masculine like carrion. From Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971) and Mad Max (George Miller, 1979) to The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) and The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005), Australian cinema has a storied history of isolating characters in the unfamiliar terrain of the outback to expose the darkness underneath. Writer/director Grant Scicluna’s debut feature, Downriver (2015), follows dutifully in this tradition, offering a sly twist on a tale typically reserved for the hyper-masculine and heterosexual.
Scicluna transposes the bulk of his story onto a more straightforward locale, the kind many viewers who grew up in Australia will remember from childhood holidays away from the city: a caravan park, replete with cabins and an entrenched ecosystem among long-time and short-term residents. After he is released from prison, this is the place James (Reef Ireland, played as a child by Rory Mackenzie) returns to – a place where he possesses significant notoriety as a danger, and a murderer. The caravan park sits next to the Yarra River somewhere outside Melbourne, and it is the river that forms the locus of the story: a dirty, still, glazed reminder of a terrible tragedy.
The cause of James’ incarceration is both clear and mysterious. The film opens with an interrogation; a woman (Alicia Gardiner) sits in a chair opposite James, tears in her eyes. She is the mother of a young boy, Chris (Oliver Achen), who drowned near the caravan park when James was very young, and it is quickly established that James was there when it happened. She asks him whether he weighed Chris’ body down, whether he pushed the body out – begging for something to put to rest all the questions burning in her mind for so long. It’s a testament to Ireland as an actor that his inability to answer those questions registers so vividly on his face, immediately setting the audience’s expectations about how the narrative will progress. It is obvious that there is a notional truth to the events that caused the boy’s death, but it’s far from evident what the nature of that truth might be, or how it might affect our already-fragile perception of James as a protagonist.
Downriver is afforded a brief but considerable sense of ambiguity simply by leaving the question of James’ guilt unanswered. However, his quest to find Chris’ body upon returning to the area garnishes his character with a nobility that unfortunately erases some of the effect of this indirect questioning of his role as the picture’s ostensible hero. At times, as the circumstances become clearer, the glimmer of a film more convinced of the idea of James as an antihero can become distracting, even as Downriver moves further away from it.
A kink in the rural
Scicluna’s script is fixated on the idea of redemption. As much as Chris’ mother wants closure, it becomes clear that James needs it, too, in order to move on with his life. In the absence of a healthy structure to return to in the real world, he revisits the past in order to create some foundation for his future. His mother, Paige (Kerry Fox), seems detached from him, perhaps having necessarily distanced herself from what had happened to cope with the idea of what her son had done. This stands somewhat in contrast to the similarly premised Boy A (John Crowley, 2007), which centres on a man, convicted for murder as a child, who instead seeks to create a new, unburdened identity. Downriver sets itself apart through its thriller approach and distinct narrative and themes.
James’ sexuality is one element made unambiguous. On his last night in jail, he and his cellmate risk a tender moment of closeness. It’s a scene that harks back to Scicluna’s 2012 short film, The Wilding, which also stars Ireland, about a romance between two young men in prison. The director’s interest in the way homosexuality flourishes in the hidden crevices of masculine environments adds a compelling flavour to Downriver. James’ return to the caravan park quickly sees him become fast friends – and, soon, lovers – with local Damien (Charles Grounds), a lanky, slightly effete boy who thrills at the unspoken understanding that develops between him and James. What begins as James simply looking for a source of updated information about the area becomes at first a genuine friendship, then a burgeoning intimacy, in a less-than-friendly place.
Also lurking in the area is Anthony (Tom Green, played as a child by Luke Tieri), a kind of trickster devil and satyr who seems to possess a strange dominion over the land. Anthony’s family lives in a house nearby, and he quickly recognises James – who had been trying to conceal the true nature of his visit – as who he really is. This is because Anthony was also there when Chris died – but it would be too simplistic if it turned out he was responsible. James, who has epilepsy, had passed out as a result of his condition on the day Chris drowned, and has never quite been able to connect the dots. Noticing James’ presence, Anthony quickly sets about seducing Damien if for no other reason than to torment James.
Scicluna is commendably matter-of-fact about his characters’ sexualities, and Downriver’s evocation of the way same-sex desire manifests in these environments is effective and realistic. Whereas rural environments can exacerbate isolation for queer men, they can also lead to connection simply through proximity. Downriver stops short of labelling any character’s orientation, leaving characters like Anthony – who seems to use his fluid sexual appetite as a tool for manipulation – both defined and undefined by it.
Location, relocation, dislocation
That Anthony had also, apparently, taunted another local youth, Ray (Shannon Glowacki), into self-mutilating is perhaps a bit of an overreach, but it reflects Downriver’s commentary regarding the convenience of not having to consider what happens in places too far away from the city to be heard about. Suspicion, fear and intolerance can be forces of nature that rise like the tides of the rivers that run through towns: calm on the surface, but turbulent underneath. It’s no surprise that James, overcome, seizes when he finds himself back in the Yarra’s waters. Anthony’s coercion of Ray propels the film into the Freudian, the pervasive stench of masculine influence in the town pushing him to exercise his own to remove that of another.
But it’s the introduction of Anthony’s family that picks the knotty narrative apart and loosens up proceedings. Joe (Lester Ellis Jr), his brother, arrives to intimidate James, and his display of dominance – thanks to the clever queerness pervading the bulk of the film – takes on a shade of conflicted homophobia. Anthony has abrupt, forceful sex with Damien in the caravan park’s shower blocks, and he and Joe later kidnap Damien and coerce James to make a choice: the whereabouts of Chris’ body, or his new – and perhaps only – friend’s safety.
Because of the nature of the crime that took place, everything in this story ties back to the land in some capacity. The way the park is embedded in the landscape, encroached on by baby boomers in caravans and parents who refuse to let their children go near the river, speaks to the deep internalisation of violent tragedies in small communities. The dirty stillness of the river is complemented by the laconic Australian beauty of gum trees and blue skies hanging over it. In many ways, Downriver plays like a localised response to the gritty and grim textures of Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), a film that dwells in the starkness of the Ozarks’ landscapes. Even when the plot of Granik’s film is resolved, the proof taken from the waters, the knowledge of what happened persists, etched deeper into the earth with every downpour.
Certainly, Downriver’s setting fosters secrecy and discord, papered over by staunch Aussie politeness. This is reflected in all corners of the film, from the furtive intrusion into Paige’s sex life – her first appearance in the film – to the way James peers through the security screen of his cabin and snoops around Anthony’s house. It is only in this way that crucial secrets are eventually uncovered. James’ presence is a disruption of the landscape, an element removed from the ecosystem and dangerously reintroduced. It is no surprise that his return up-ends the thick atmosphere of repression cloaking the community.
The criminal element
When it emerges that Anthony at one time had a baby sister, the mystery begins to fully unravel. Typically, it’s a kind of contemporary folklore – perhaps, ungenerously, gossip – that allows the dots to be connected. This baby sister, seemingly, drowned; however, to James’ eyes, there was no trace of her presence in Anthony’s family’s house. No mention of her, nor photographs nor memorials. It’s more than clear that something isn’t right with this family, their ability to flex their menace quite evidently concealing something, if not everything. The cycle of abuse in Anthony’s family runs deep and dark in a manner never fully elucidated, but entirely indicative of the depth of evil at work.
To some extent, the lack of clarity about Anthony’s family is frustrating on a narrative level. Thematically, however, Downriver’s resistance to explain itself is realistic in a manner that fictional mysteries like this tend not to be. The story told by loner local Mary (Helen Morse) about Anthony’s family, which points James to Chris’ location, provides enough connective tissue to make the narrative leap achievable without sacrificing the heady ambiguity that made the mystery compelling in the first place. That Chris’ body was never even technically in the river itself is a revelation that makes all the more sense.
The pylon of the bridge towering over the water feels so close and yet so far – the intersection of the natural and the unnatural, the environmental and the human. It is here that Downriver reaches the apex of its powers. As James hurries down a pipe, bearing a singular torch, the light shines in a halo around him. It’s absolution at work, almost a divinity, his path to redemption literalised in the physical. When he later returns there with the help of Damien and Mary, he is lowered into the depths of the hollow pylon by rope and, as he searches the water within, the loop that held his foot hovers balefully like a noose at neck height, the threat of following his obsession to a similar end ever persisting. Scicluna refuses to allow the camera to recoil as James pulls one small corpse and then a smaller one from the water, placing them side-by-side on a half-submerged wooden structure. The effect of the camera’s lens lingering on these disintegrated cadavers mingles disgust with relief. Up to this point, everything in this story has been grey.
Downriver closes by allowing James to move from the trap of the river to the open freedom of the ocean, finding him overlooking its vast expanse in an extreme long shot capturing the lush green of the coastline and the shimmering blue-white of the sun-dappled sea. Right before the cut to black, a lone, unidentified figure enters the frame. Even in its conclusion, Downriver insists on ambiguity. Is this the spectre of James’ past haunting him as he stands on the brink of a new, freer life? Or is it Damien, come to assure the viewer that James won’t have to face the life beyond his extended trauma alone? That either answer is satisfying in its way is a credit to Scicluna, whose work suggests a fascinating future as his writing and direction mature. The thorniness of Downriver’s narrative and the droumy nature of its subject matter attest to an ambitious undertaking for a first-time feature, and raising more questions than the film can answer – as well as including more perspectives than it requires – is indicative of an unmistakably queer voice, sounding from outside the established hegemony, that Australian cinema needs.