Suburban Mayhem Review
Katrina Skinner (Emily Barclay) is a bad girl. A very very bad girl indeed. A nineteen-year-old single mother, her older brother in prison for decapitating a cashier with a samurai sword during a shop raid, she will stop at nothing to get what she wants and woe betide anyone who gets in her way…
Written by Alice Bell, Suburban Mayhem tells its story drama-docu style, interspersing the action with interviews with the major characters. By using this technique, and in the way the story plays out, there’s a good few resemblances to Gus Van Sant’s film To Die For, which was written by Buck Henry. Maybe by being written by a woman rather than by a man, Suburban Mayhem seems a little less judgemental about its main character. Indeed, the present film seems torn between being appalled at Katrina’s monstrousness and admiration for her sheer chutzpah in completely ignoring the rules and getting away with it.
If this film belongs to anyone, it’s Emily Barclay. She was born in 1984 in England, and this is only her second feature. It took me a while to realise that I had seen her first film and she had played a sizeable role in it: Celia in In My Father’s Den. In her hands, Katrina is a memorable creation. A memorable opening scene, where her mobile phone rings in church and she takes it out of her cleavage to answer it, just sets the tone. In a blonde wig (dyed black later on), tight-fitting tops, miniskirts and heels, a cigarette frequently at her lips, Barclay makes the role her own. Katrina is amoral and possibly psychopathic, using her body to manipulate the much less bright men who cluster around her. Although she does have a baby, which may be one of the few people she actually loves, she isn’t sentimentalised. As well as men, she also (platonically) seduces women – notably mousy beautician Lilya (Mia Wasikowska) who under Katrina’s tutelage finds her inner femme fatale. Many of Bell’s lines aren’t repeatable in polite society and the language used could blister paint. Her final line of dialogue is a gem. Barclay won the AFI Award for Best Actress for this performance.
Under Paul Goldman’s direction, for half its length, Suburban Mayhem is a sharp, funny, pitch-black comedy which has the sense not to hang around too much and to outstay its welcome. However, it does tend to slow in the middle sections, and the second half is much more serious and less funny, as Katrina entices dim Kenny (Anthony Hayes) to commit murder on her behalf. Goldman has made two earlier films I have yet to see (Australian Rules and The Night We Called It a Day) and, some visual flourishes apart, he generally keeps out of the way. He and DP Robert Humphreys give the film a bright, slightly rough and tacky look, using handheld cameras in many scenes. The music score is by Mick Harvey – stay to near the end of the final credits and you’ll see that Toni Collette contributed some vocals. The score is complemented by a selection of rock tracks, most of which were by Australians unfamiliar to me – though one, Suzi Quatro’s “48 Crash”, is an indelible memory from my Top of the Pops-watching childhood. Harvey’s score won one of the film’s three AFI awards, with nine other nominations.
Although this film is dominated by its lead role, it is backed up by a strong supporting cast. Anthony Hayes (also unrecognisable from Look Both Ways and The Boys) also took home an AFI Award, his second in two years as Best Supporting Actor. Genevieve Lemon, as Katrina’s Aunt Dianne makes an impression with a role which is mostly solo to camera in the interview footage.
Suburban Mayhem is a pretty dark tale, and will be too much for some people to take. (Dog lovers in particular should beware.) Although Paul Goldman does a capable job, just for once this isn’t a director’s film but a writer’s one and a leading actress’s one. After just two features, clearly Emily Barclay has a considerable future ahead of her.
Suburban Mayhem is released by Icon Australia in two editions. The Special Edition is a single disc (encoded for Region 2 as well as Region 4) inside an amaray case. For five dollars more you can buy the Limited Edition, which has a second disc (the soundtrack CD) and has a cardboard slipcase over the amaray.
The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The film was shot in 35mm for the most part. The interview scenes were shot on HD digital video and were filmed from a monitor, resulting in a deliberately washed-out look for this footage. The rest of the film looks very good: strong colours and blacks and good shadow detail. There is some grain present, but it’s natural and filmlike.
The soundtrack options are Dolby Digital 5.1 and analogue Dolby Surround. As Goldman mentions in the commentary, this is a deliberately aggressive sound mix, with the various rock songs up high and sounding great at decent volume. There is quite a lot of directional and ambient sound in the surrounds, along with the music, and the subwoofer gets some action too. Unfortunately there are no subtitles available.
The commentary track is the work of Paul Goldman, Alice Bell and producer Leah Churchill-Brown. Goldman and Bell speak the most, and there’s quite a bit of mutual joshing between them. Goldman is frank about what he sees as the film’s shortcomings, but is full of praise for his collaborators and his cast.
The making of-featurette, “The A-Z of Suburban Mayhem” (27:33) takes its cue from the line that Katrina has had at least one sexual partner for every letter of the alphabet. So we have much the same mix of interviews, behind-the-scene footage and clips from the feature. Like many of the extras on this disc, this featurette is the work of Alice Bell and typical of her somewhat jokey approach. Bell also made “The Receptionist Mockumentary” (4:57), which features on Alexandra Fletcher, who plays the small role of the beauty salon receptionist and also “What is the Film About?” (2:35), a series of interview soundbites summed up by the title. Both are amusing, if a little self-indulgent. Also on the disc are blooper reels (7:03) and deleted scenes (14:25, timecoded).
The limited edition has a set of five collector cards as well as the soundtrack CD mentioned above. The latter has the following tracklisting, with artists’ names in round brackets. Other tracks are extracts from Mick Harvey’s score unless indicated. 1. My Side of the Story [dialogue extract] 2. Double Dare (Adalita) 3. Troubled Mind (The Buff Medways) 4. Paco Doesn’t Love Me (The Spazzy’s) 5. White Hott (The Wedding Night) 6. Inbred Disco (Bird Blobs) 7. Sex Beat (Adalita) 8. Daddy (Magic Dirt) 9. Devil Song (theredsunband) 10. This Is a Love Song (Little Birdy) 11. 48 Crash (Suzi Quatro) 12. The Sunshine Drive (The Spazzy’s) 13. Sucker Love (Magic Dirt) 14. I Don’t Have a Nan.... [dialogue extract] 15. The Samurai Sword 16. Danny Gets Arrested 17. Judge Threw Away the Key 18. Fudging Someone Else 19. Smoking the Bong 20. Driven to Kenny 21. Kenny Does the Deed 22. Goodnight Bub (The Murder) 23. I Did It For You 24. Brainwashing With Kindness 15. My Brother’s a Murderer. If you like the film five dollars Australian isn’t that much more, is it? The extras rating on this review is for the limited edition: dock one point for the standard special edition.