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The Rooster

Mark Leonard Winter’s first feature film
Bonsai Films
by
ABR Arts 20 February 2024

The Rooster

Mark Leonard Winter’s first feature film
Bonsai Films
by
ABR Arts 20 February 2024
Phoenix Raei as Dan and Hugo Weaving as Mit (photograph courtesy of Bonsai Films and by Sarah Enticknap).
Phoenix Raei as Dan and Hugo Weaving as Mit (photograph courtesy of Bonsai Films and by Sarah Enticknap).

While it is set in the remote bushland of Victoria’s Macedon Ranges, The Rooster is hardly a quiet or peaceful film. The cacophonic soundtrack opens with a chorus of crickets accompanying the title credits and a haunting first image. We soon hear recurring, ironic snippets of Verdi, Bach, Vivaldi, and Puccini on a car radio, jazz interludes from Miles Davis and Pharaoh Sanders blasting from a secluded shack, and the cathartic yells of the film’s two principals as they crow cock-like into the tree-lined void. Whenever silence looms, the calls of kookaburras and bell birds take centre stage, or a surreal bushwalking church choir chimes in, allowing only brief moments of respite. Even the film’s eerie, rhythmic vocal score, by composer Stefan Gregory, resembles the iconic pobblebonk frogs audible in some of the film’s night-time scenes. Like its animal namesake, The Rooster boasts a soundscape that cuts through the familiar calm of the Australian bush.

Elsewhere, however, Mark Leonard Winter’s début feature struggles to find its voice, striking out for new territory as a revisionist genre exercise, while at the same time reaching into a grab-bag of ready-made tropes as it ambles towards a desultory ending.

The Rooster is the story of small-town cop, Dan (Phoenix Raei), whose enigmatic struggles with depression manifest from the beginning as disturbing dream sequences. After trying in vain to save his childhood friend Steve (Rhys Mitchell), who is battling severe mental health issues, Dan’s woes deepen, and he is relieved of his duties as he turns to the bottle and takes to the bush to work through his troubles in isolation. He is not alone, however, as it is here that he chances upon Mit (Hugo Weaving), a hermit so called because of his backwards articulation of his own name in childhood. Mit has baggage of his own, but with some years on Dan, has somehow survived, courtesy of a mix of booze, free jazz, and one-player table tennis. When Dan and Mit cross paths, an uneasy alliance is forged, and the two find that they share a number of unexpected connections. Mit, the last person to see Steve alive, tells Dan that he gave the young man the ‘dignity’ of leaving the world by his own hand. Later, we learn that Dan’s father – also a cop – had a run-in years ago with Mit, wielding his power by taking the hermit’s pay packet from his pocket. But is there more to the story? How much do we really know about either of these two men?

Hugo Weaving as Mit photograph courtesy of Bonsai Films and by Sarah EnticknapHugo Weaving as Mit (photograph courtesy of Bonsai Films and by Sarah Enticknap)

The respective backstories of Dan and Mit are mostly hidden from the viewers: save for a few trauma-induced expositional monologues, they emerge as gestures, tics and outbursts from Raei and Weaving. Given the film’s dependence on their performances, it is perhaps no surprise that Winter is best known as an actor (Elvis, The Dressmaker), as well as winning plaudits for his work on the stage (Birdland). The director’s decision to centre his narrative around two men couches this as a sort of chamber drama, and one that gives much weight to its two leads. The lovably gruff Weaving – who recently won the AACTA Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role – might have lived in the character’s shoes for some time. Even his more explosive moments are well played without seeming overly affected. Raei turns in a more understated performance, although a memorable drunken outpouring sees both actors dancing to jazz and jokingly intoning the memorable words of self-pity that Mit tells Dan are a red flag for anyone suffering from depression: ‘Oh nooooo!’

The way that this recognisably parochial Australian crime story becomes instead a story of two men bonding over their collective despair is genuinely interesting; where it goes awry is its return to the plot points of the crime story in its third act. Late on, a possible revelation about Mit’s family history is one of a couple of ‘gotcha’ moments that seem like afterthoughts. Information is telegraphed – or rather, telephoned – in to make us question our assumptions about Weaving’s character, but the tonal shift back towards a detective plot undermines the ground the film has gained in its depiction of broken masculinity. Whatever you think of the film’s efforts to present its characters as rounded human beings, this last repositioning of Dan and Mit as cat and mouse undoes a lot of that work, and brings the film’s run time into sharp relief as it tries to wrap up its surprise cold case.

The Rooster can be abrasive in productive ways, offering a seemingly typical story that goes off in an unpredictable direction, and introducing some unexpected aural elements into its depiction of the Victorian bush. The concluding plot twists can come across as a little on the nose and prove distracting. As with the animal that haunts Dan throughout, this is a film whose crowing is often welcomed, but one that might also have benefited from stillness and quietness too.

 


The Rooster (Bonsai Films) will be released nationally on 22 February 2024.

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Comment (1)

  • That's a nicely written review. While returning a negative interpretation it creates enough intrigue to make it something one might like to see. Hugo Weaving's performance in Glendyn Ivin's 'Last Ride' was so compelling. That alone would be sufficient to make me want to take a look at this.
    Posted by Patrick Hockey
    23 February 2024

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