Suburban Mayhem, 95 mins, rated [MA15+], opening in cinemas on 26 October 2006.


(This is my review as published in the October 2006 issue of the New South Wales Law Society Journal)

There have been many bad girls and evil women in the history of cinema, particularly in the era of film noir. There was our own Dame Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940), and Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944). More recently we had Kathleen Turner as Matty Walker in Body Heat (1981) and Linda Fiorentino as Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction (1994). There are many more.

In Suburban Mayhem, first-time scriptwriter Alice Bell has created a femme fatale for the 21st century. She’s Katrina Skinner, played by New Zealand actress Emily Barclay, last seen here in In My Father’s Den (McGann, 2004) on the big screen and The Silence (Shortland, 2006) on the small screen. Katrina is young – only 19 (Barclay herself has just turned 22). She’s a single mother who believes there are better things to do than working for a living. Her brother is in prison serving a life sentence, and she wants to get him out. She decides to do this by inheriting the proceeds of sale of her father’s house. But her father’s not dead yet. That won’t stop Katrina.

Katrina’s character is strangely attractive, despite her utter self-absorption and ruthlessness. “She’s manipulative, predatory and volatile… a bully with a monstrous sense of entitlement… the perfect poster-girl for these raunchy, reactionary, mean times of ours,” says director Paul Goldman (Australian Rules, 2002, The Night we Called it a Day, 2003).

But Katrina is not just a figment of a writer’s imagination. She is grounded in reality. Writer Alice Bell had a huge collection of newspaper clippings about family-based crimes. She wanted to write a film about a dreadful event within a suburban family, and she didn’t want the justice system to catch up with the perpetrator.

The strengths of this film are in its witty script, clever dialogue and arresting characters. But its structure is a problem. For one thing, the film is set up as a (fictional) documentary, with various characters giving their opinions about Katrina and her family to an unseen interviewer. This format has been over-used, and it seems an easy structure to fall back on when none other comes to mind.

The film starts well, with a fun title sequence involving an animated envelope representing a text message sent to Katrina’s mobile by one of her many boyfriends. The contemporary Oz-rock soundtrack is dynamic, but it seemed to me that the music was being used to fill in structural and narrative flaws. The film gets quite episodic as it draws to a close: it becomes a series of vignettes.

A strong supporting cast includes the newcomer Michael Dorman, best known for his TV work (The Silence, 2006 and The Secret Life of Us, 2002-2005), who portrays a decent, but stupid young man caught in Katrina’s thrall. Geneviève Lemon (The Piano, Jane Campion, 1993) is nicely down-to-earth as a neighbour who sees through Katrina’s wiles. And Anthony Hayes (The Boys, Rowan Woods, 1998 and Look Both Ways, Sarah Watt, 2005) is a standout as a mentally challenged and drug-affected admirer of Katrina and her brother Danny (Laurence Breuls).

Still, Emily Barclay is definitely the star. She perfectly conveys the character of Katrina as a manipulative little tramp, whose ability to get what she wants is purely based on her sleazy good-looks, her sexual favours, and the sheer force of her will. We know that once her looks fade, her powers will wither too. But that’s all in the future. For now, life’s not fair, and that’s what Katrina exploits.

Is she the worst of the movie bad girls? I say no. That honour belongs to Gene Tierney, as Ellen Berent Harland in the movie classic Leave Her to Heaven (Stahl, 1945). Now she’s a character whose unbridled selfishness might shock even Katrina Skinner.