The Cronulla riots was the name given to a racially motivated violent outburst that took place in mid-December of 2005, as well as the several days and nights of continued violence in the Cronulla suburb of Sydney, Australia. It was a violent release after increasing tensions between the caucasian population and Lebanese youths. Many people were injured and even more were arrested. It was a sudden and shocking moment that forced Australia to face an insidious underbelly that they have ignored for years, one that made them embarrassed and afraid to touch, even after all this time.
This is the backdrop for Down Under, a wacky comedy from writer/director, Abe Forsythe.
OK, wacky is a bit of an exaggeration, but the film is most definitely a dark comedy and it does have a fair share of moments that can be described as “wacky.” It follows two group of men, one group being caucasian, the other being Lebanese, who drive out the night after the riot to inflict some form of violent retaliation upon each other. The men who initiate it, Nick (Rahel Romahn) for the Lebanese and Jason (Damon Herriman) for the caucasians, brought their respective groups together because they feel it is what’s expected of them. That, as men, it is essentially their duty to seek out retribution for vague notions of righteousness, justice and nationalism. The other members are there mostly because they have nothing else to do, or in the case of Hassim (Lincoln Younes), who, after being pestered by Nick, is hoping to find some trace of his brother who hasn’t been in contact with the family for the last few days, and Shit-Stick (Alexander England) and his cousin Evan (Chris Bunton) were pretty much pressured into joining their group for the patrol. What Forsythe does clever in crafting these two groups of people is nonchalantly dropping nods and references that point to the various similarities that these groups share. After a while, they sort of blend together. It furthers the ultimate tragedy of people who divide themselves over things that shouldn’t matter and the devastating consequences that can come out of it. It isn’t a shallow exercise of “oh they’re both equally bad,” there is a lot of empathy placed on the characters, some more than others, definitely, but there is a good balance and Forsythe is really able to dig into the humanity behind the actions that are taken by these deeply flawed individuals.
The film shares similarities in tone and approach to that of Four Lions, which was a comedy following a group of homegrown jihadists in England. It also shares a lot of what made Four Lions work, and is probably the closest to a successor that we’ve had since (and considering that I think Four Lions is one of the all-time great comedies, this is most definitely a compliment). It cranks the irony to 11 with moments of inspired levels of stupidity, but never to the point of playing things too broad. As a dark comedy, one of the hardest subgenres to pull off, Forsythe and his cast are able to walk that tightrope of tonal balance with a finesse that is so rarely achieved. The transition from humor to tragedy is played wonderfully for the most part.
If anything, the film could’ve afforded to be even meaner and crueler than it was. While there are serious consequences, the film’s climax is oddly rushed, so the moments meant to make you sit back and reflect are over and done with as quick as they came, save for the killer final shot. However, it mostly works, but I think the finale needed just a little more time to allow things to fully sink in. There are also moments where the limited budget became fairly obvious, but never to the point of taking you out of the story.
I can’t call it perfect, but it has been a long time since I’ve seen a comedy as daring and challenging as Down Under. What Abe Forsythe accomplishes is crafting a deliberate and fine-tuned examination on ignorance and toxic masculinity and the dark places that those elements can take a man. It’s empathetic and humanizes its characters, but also full of razor sharp and take-no-prisoners style commentary that’s full of urgency and more than willing to call out bullshit when it sees it. It’s a relevant film that is able to take a very culture-specific event and thematically tie it to ideas and emotions that audiences from practically anywhere can connect with. And it manages to do all this while also being consistently and profoundly hilarious. Any film that can take real life horror and ugliness and twist it into something that’s entertaining and funny, but also purposeful and thought-provoking is an immediate mark for required viewing and Down Under makes a strong case for one of the best comedies of 2016. 85/100
Down Under is currently seeking US distribution.