Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Noise, a 2007 thriller from Australia directed by Matthew Saville, starts with a vivid set-piece. A woman steps onto a subway train. After the train pulls out, the man in the seat in front of her topples to the ground. She looks around her and realizes that everyone in the car has been massacred. For a point of reference, this sets up echoes of Clive Barker's "The Midnight Meat Train." The scenes shortly thereafter detail a murder in the suburbs that eventually link to the subway massacre. But detailing the plot of this movie is probably beside the point. Apart from its opening scene and its closing scene (a vivid and nasty gunfight), this isn't that kind of movie. Not really.

Noise follows the intersecting paths of two characters: Lavinia (Maia Thomas) is the woman who we watch enter the train and who, the movie later tells us, survives a confrontation with the author of the massacre. The other is Constable Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell), a cop who suffers from constant tinnitus. McGahan seems to be the only sympathetic cop in Melbourne, and he's dealing with the crushing isolation of his diminished hearing, the bureaucratic BS of his department regarding it, a potential cancer diagnosis, and a deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend (who is also a cop). In another (American) movie, these two characters would meet, fall in love, and he would rescue her. Fortunately, this isn't that movie. Instead, this movie ladles on the quotidian detail of their lives, including the quotidian minutia of being involved with a murder case. The film builds a good deal of gloom and doom out of this approach, given that it meticulously sets up a sword of Damocles for each character. In addition to exploring a kind of miserablist theme of alienation, this is a film that postulates that even if you are being stalked by a serial killer, the details of life go on. It does occasionally cause the film to drag, though.

Stylistically, this is in line with contemporary noir from Australia and elsewhere. It's a gloomy film, lit by fluorescent lights and populated with brutish working class losers. It looks like a lot of other films, actually, though it's slick and accomplished--especially during the two sequences that open and close the film. The sound design, on the other hand, is unusual. This film places a premium on its soundscape; as its title suggests, there's a LOT of noise in this film, and it makes a point of recreating McGahan tinnitus on the soundtrack. Sometimes, as in a scene where McGahan can't hear anything over the ringing in his ear, the soundtrack is almost unbearable. Sometimes, the soundtrack overwhelms the dialogue, too, exacerbated by heavy Australian accents and idioms; in places, I was wishing for subtitles (I watched it on Netflix Instant).

For all of its art-film tics, though, this is still a thriller, and when you get right down to it, it does its job. Crime films and crime fiction learned long ago that if you pay attention to the thrills, you can do whatever else you want. If you want to watch the everyday details of the lives of these characters, so be it. Just give a payoff. This film understands this in its bones. By opening as it does, and by closing as it does, it also shows an understanding of Sam Arkoff's dictum that you need a good first reel and a good last reel, but what's in between doesn't matter.

I mentioned the gunfight at the end, and I'd like to elaborate on that a bit. It's a duel between a man with a pistol and a man with a shotgun. It's filmed with an admirable economy, showing exactly where the two combatants are and never fudging the geography of the scene. It's clean in the way a lot of Hong Kong action scenes are clean, but it doesn't FEEL like one of those scenes, because neither combatant is a gun fu master. They're saddled with the need to stay behind cover, the need to reload under duress, and the need to not get killed. To put this into context: I can't imagine being Chow Yun-Fat in The Killer or Hard Boiled, with his preternatural grace and ease with his pistols, even under fire, but I can imagine being Brendan Cowell in this movie: scared shitless, fumbling to open his gun and reload it, dealing with the deafening sound of the gunshots, losing track of his opponent. There's a palpable desperation in this scene, and the way it's staged has a visceral punch. It certainly leaves a mark as the credits roll.

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