This Comedy About The Cronulla Riots Is One Of The Smartest Australian Films In Years
It's also incredibly stupid. And that's the point.
On premise alone, Down Under seems like a terrible idea. Written and directed by Abe Forsythe (who’s previously appeared in Always Greener, Laid), it’s a big screen black comedy set in the immediate aftermath of the Cronulla riots, and follows meatheads on both sides of the ethnic divide as they drive around the Sydney suburbs on the hunt for a little bloody retribution. Sounds hilarious, right?
A decade on, the violence at Cronulla, and the underlying racial tension that fuelled it, is destined to be remembered as one of the most shameful chapters in Australian history. In light of that, prospective viewers could be forgiven for coming to a comedy about these events with a healthy dose of scepticism.
So here’s the good news: after catching Down Under at its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival last week, I can confirm that Forsythe’s film (his second feature to date) is a hell of a lot more intelligent than you might expect. As a matter of fact, I’d wager it’s one of the savviest Australian comedies in years. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t also incredibly stupid, because it most definitely is. And that’s the entire point.
Hate Is Dumb And Stupidity Doesn’t Discriminate
I’m not going to try and break down what sparked the riots back in 2005, but hopefully we can all agree that, in addition to being embarrassing and horrifying, they were also really fucking stupid. Bigotry is born of ignorance, and Forsythe and his team know it. That’s where the comedy comes from in this film.
Whether it’s an Arab kid forced to wear Aussie flag board shorts after losing his pants (don’t ask), or a white guy spouting off about his all-Australian hero Ned Kelly only to be casually informed that the famous bushranger was an immigrant from Ireland, the characters in this film are consistently shown to be idiots, and the jokes come almost exclusively at their expense.
Forsythe also relishes the chance to draw parallels between the two groups, driving home the point that, for all the hatred that divides them, they’re really not all that different. We see it in the way they act (a recurring visual motif involves the characters doing doughnuts in extreme slow motion), and hear it in the way they talk (there are points in this film where it feels like every second line of dialogue is ‘cunt’, delivered in that colloquial Aussie way).
But perhaps most importantly, none of the characters, on either side, are depicted as being entirely despicable. Stupid, sure — but not evil. They’re motivated by prejudice, but also by a genuine belief that they’re protecting their own. Add to that the fact that they’re just so bloody dopey, and you may very well find yourself actually liking them. This of course makes it that much harder to stomach when they go and do the reprehensible things that they inevitably end up doing.
Introducing Down Under before the festival screening, Forsythe said that one of his major inspirations was the British comedy Four Lions: a hysterical film which tracks a group of wannabe jihadis as they go about planning a terror attack in London.
It was a high bar for Forsythe to set for himself, but he certainly came close. Ultimately, the aim of both films is to hold bigots up for ridicule, allowing viewers to decry them as the morons they so obviously are.
One big downside of Forsythe’s focused approach is that he fails to really acknowledge the other factors that led to the riots. For example, although snippets of media coverage are heard in the background throughout the film, the director avoids making direct references to certain radio personalities who played a part in stoking the flames of racial disunity.
Anyone hoping for an Alan Jones cameo will be sorely disappointed — and by not acknowledging the role of shock jocks and conservative pollies in what happened, Forsythe has let them off the hook. Incidentally, this is the only time you will ever find me saying that something might actually be improved by the inclusion of Alan Jones.
There’s also an argument to be made that by dismissing these bigoted characters as idiots, the film fails to interrogate why this sort of thing could happen in modern day Australia at all. We have a long, proud history in this country of failing to acknowledge how racist we are, and while Forsythe’s thesis about the stupidity of prejudice is certainly sound, there’s a lot more to this issue than thugs with low IQs. I suppose it’s a trade-off. The more you dig into that, the harder it is to make audiences laugh — at the end of the day, the film is still meant to be a comedy.
Actually, what I should say is that it’s meant to be a comedy… until suddenly it isn’t. One thing that you cannot deny is that Forsythe doesn’t shy away from the brutality of racist violence. Without getting into specific spoilers, there is a point late in this movie where it’s as if someone has swapped over a reel without warning and you’re watching a totally different film. The violence in the dying moment of Down Under is extraordinarily hard to watch. It’s nasty, jarring and not funny in the slightest. As a result, viewers are forced to reflect on all the moments throughout the film when these characters made them laugh. It’s uncomfortable, and it should be.
Provoking A Reaction
You don’t make a movie about the Cronulla riots unless you’re hoping to court a little controversy. Indeed, Forsythe has been quite open about wanting to provoke a reaction. Some people will be opposed to the film on principle. Others just won’t find the content funny. But the really interesting reactions will come from the people who live in the suburbs where the film is set — because believe me, they do not come across well. Not that the rioters can really complain. Forsythe begins the movie with actual footage from December 2005, making it perfectly clear that the fictional characters in his film are rooted closely in reality.
Of course, it’s also entirely possible that the film could be embraced by the very people it sets out to condemn. You may have heard stories about Wall Street dickheads loving The Wolf of Wall Street and cheering during the film’s many scenes of debauchery, or redneck Americans singing ‘America, Fuck Yeah’ without the slightest shred of irony.
There’s little doubt in my mind that Down Under condemns the actions of its characters, but there will be viewers who disagree — and others who don’t care, because they’re too busy laughing with glee anytime the guy with the Southern Cross tattoo says something completely appalling. That’s not Forsythe’s fault. An artist can’t necessarily help how their art is interpreted. And if there’s one thing that the riots taught us, it’s that there are an awful lot of idiots out there.
Down Under has finished its run at Sydney Film Festival. It’ll be in cinemas nationally from August 11.
Tom Clift is a freelance journalist from Melbourne. He is the co-founder of Movie Mezzanine, weekend editor at Concrete Playground, film critic for ABC Overnights and tweets sporadically at @tom_clift.