The Castle’s Darryl Kerrigan Is The Kind Of Hero Australia Needs Right Now
"Darryl was the defiant 'yeah, nah' response to the detached cruelty of the Howard years."
This week we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Castle with some reflections on the film’s importance in Australian pop culture.
A grimacing Malcolm Turnbull clasping the sweaty mitts of Gautam Adani. Barnaby Joyce’s puckering sphincter of a mouth wetly telling us to move to Tamworth and stop our moaning. Scientists lining up like hat-clasping mourners to say that the Great Barrier Reef has as much life in it as a dry stack of seagull guano. The Centrelink app becoming sentient and calling in IOUs like a dogtrack bookie. Somewhere, in the maelstrom of bullshit that is Australia in 2017, I hear the voice of Darryl Kerrigan, exasperated, fed-up, cornered, pleading for “the law of common sense”.
The Castle is as much well-meaning piss-take as it is radical tract. It’s a politely angry screed of a film that takes on the Australian tragedy as TV-dinner farce. On its egg-carton soapbox stands Darryl Kerrigan: Michael Caton’s empathic everyman, who emits a decency so magnetic that it has made him as beloved as an icon of Australian cinema as he was by his family. As his wife Sal puts it, in telling the story of how she fell in love with Darryl, “that man has principles”.
Darryl Kerrigan was the perfect counterpoint to Hawke/Keating neo-liberalism. He was the defiant “yeah, nah” response to the detached cruelty of the Howard years. The Kerrigans were the quintessential Aussie battlers. Alongside their linoleum kitchen tiles and Hey Hey It’s Saturday viewing parties was the flickering light on the hill that is the ‘fair go’ — the amorphous myth/right that is the binding warmth of Australian working class identity.
In 2017, when the fair go means contentment with black mould-riddled rental properties and crippling student debt, the humble defiance of Darryl Kerrigan has a particularly deep resonance.
Darryl finds himself up against the government, who want to turf his family and his greyhounds out of their little kingdom. It’s not really the government he’s fighting, but the Barlow Group — a multi-billion dollar corporation that has taken a government contract and turned it into an expansive project for their airline company, Airlink. “It’s a way of privatising without privatising,” it’s explained.
There’s great transcontinental and financial forces humming quietly in the background of The Castle — the complexities of which are beyond Darryl’s comprehension. “They are the rules,” his hapless lawyer Dennis explains to him, “they run the game”. But Darryl doesn’t need to grock the complex dehumanising horrors of late 20th century capitalism in their minutiae; he brims with no-nonsense humanism, and thus has a keen nose for bullshit. When a council inspector comes ‘round to value his property, he bluntly tells him “would you stop pretending to be on my side?”
Darryl was the defiant “yeah, nah” response to the detached cruelty of the Howard years.
The growing desperation of Darryl, brilliantly teased out by Michael Caton’s performance, is so stark in its truth that to watch it in 2017 feels like a rapid-fire gut punch from a drunk Mark Latham. His argument is so basic, so human: “It’s not a house, it’s a home. You can’t just walk in and steal our home… you can’t buy what I’ve got.” He can’t understand why it is he’s been reduced to a mathematical encumbrance in some company’s profit margin. His fight isn’t a matter of property value: “This is an example of the individual,” he says, “Of how the individual, if he has the guts, can stand up and shove it right up those people who think they can stand on top of you.”
The other people losing their homes are an elderly widower, a refugee (“They say plane fly overhead drop value. In Beirut, plane fly over head, drop bomb. I like this plane”) and a divorced mum. The characters are marginalised, voiceless. A line towards the end — after all is won — subtly brings this home. Darryl, thanking the brilliant QC (“the lawyers rich people use”) Lawrence Hammil (Bud Tingwell), leans in and says “I wish I had your words”. It’s a softly devastating line that sums up the central tension of the film so well — what happens to those without access to privilege or power when privilege and power comes against them.
People from certain families (myself included) see a lot of themselves and their upbringing in the Kerrigans’. But these days I see Darryl as more of a folk hero. Darryl was the Joe Henry of the Howard years for me, and in my darker moments I think about what the past 20 years of Australian chicanery might have felt like for the family at 3 Dagonet Street. What happened to their towing business after the boom? Did Mike Baird muck up his greyhound breeding? Did the council ever fine him for those extensions? Did the airport eventually swallow them up?
What did Darryl, after his epiphanic bout of empathy towards our first peoples, think of the Bill Leak controversy? Would he have watched Joe Hockey deliver the 2014 budget, scoffed, and said “tell ‘im he’s dreaming”? I’m dreaming myself of course, of that impossible sequel.
Re-watching the film however, it’s hard not to be reenergised by Darryl’s zenlike stoicism. You have to believe a Darryl Kerrigan can exist if you are going to keep on keeping on yourself. Like Darryl, I to want to look up and ask, “how’s the serenity?”
What wins the day for Darryl is not the pro-bono help of a retired constitutional lawyer, but his humanity — his lightness of touch, his deft and unpatronising kindness. He’s sincerely curious when he marvels at his wife’s cooking. He’s achingly proud of his daughter’s diploma from Sunshine TAFE, “the proudest day of me life”. He does mental gymnastics trying to work out how he’ll move the family, the greyhounds, and their neighbour Jack (who he offers to take in) into a two-room flat. He internalises his failing, as any person of his nature would when faced with losing against a system that they until then held in good faith.
Darryl’s son Steve explains to him: “Dad, you haven’t let anyone down. I don’t know what the opposite of letting someone down is, but you’ve done the opposite.”
Darryl’s radical strength comes from the humility and depth of his niceness. It isn’t rage or pity that attracts the QC, but Darryl’s congratulations at the retired lawyer having a son that is also a lawyer, his genuine happiness for a random bloke he’s sharing a chat with while partaking in a sneaky smoke. He knows that the fair go doesn’t have to be a jingoistic myth if you truly partake in it as a living philosophy: “the law is supposed to be about fairness, and I know sometimes what is right and fair is not clear cut, it’s a bit iffy. But this is not iffy. I mean this is clear as day. It is right and fair that a family be allowed to live in its own house. That is justice.”
I’m not sure a film like The Castle could be made in 2017. The film is a denial of everything Australia seems to stand for at the moment. It’s an open-hearted plea for community in kinship in a country where atomised disinterest and confused hatred seems to be the current end goal. 20 years later, the film remains a vital, integral film — a call to arms. “You know why people like that get their way?” Darryl tells his neighbour Farouk, “because people like us don’t stand up to them.”
It’s true. A wrong can be sniffed out, even when it can’t be articulated. Like Darryl Kerrigan, you can fight it, even if you’re just going on the “vibe.”
Patrick Marlborough is a writer and comedian based out of Fremantle. He writes regularly for VICE magazine, and has maintained steady work as a bullshit artist for some time. He’s on Facebook here and tweets at @Cormac_McCafe.