Friday, March 5, 2010

Film Review – Cactus

Writer-director: Jasmine Yuen Carrucan
Producer: Paul Sullivan
Cast: Travis McMahon, David Lyons, Bryan Brown, Shane Jacobson
Indie thriller, 89 minutes

With Kathryn Bigelow set to become the first woman in history to win Best Director at the Academy Awards, it has been a historical year for women directors. As I mentioned in my review of Fish Tank, there have been many other major releases by women in the last short while, most of them modestly budgeted independent features. Now from down under comes another indie gem written and directed by a woman filmmaker, Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan.

As with Bigelow, Yuen-Carrucan's film Cactus is dominated by males. It is essentially a two-hander starring Travis McMahon and David Lyons involved a road movie across the barren outback of Australia. One of the travelers isn’t exactly happy to make the trip, but the other has reasons for being reluctant too. Over the course of their troubling and tense trip, they bond in an unusual way and must face some difficult obstacles together. The film was shot quickly in 23 days at authentic existing locations in New South Wales: Sydney, Bathurst , Cobar, Wilcanna and Broken Hill. Despite the limited time and resources and the punishing weather, they managed to finish just before torrential rainfall hit.

A key to getting the film made was inviting the veteran star Bryan Brown to play a minor cameo. He loved the script and ended up taking on the role of executive producer as well. Complicating it somewhat for him was the fact that he was shooting the mega-budget Baz Luhrmann film Australia at the same time. Comparing the two processes, he said, “low budget film making is fun, but it’s also incredibly tough. A single problem arises and you can’t spend money on it. That’s stimulating, but it’s also challenging. It means you have to get in boots and all and give it a bloody go.”

He contributes quite a lot with his few appearances. The stars do quite well also, particularly McMahon who is suitably restrained, and keeps his emotions pent-up. Lyons is very good too, but perhaps he could have used just a touch more charm.

Some may find that the story drags in parts, but that’s actually necessary not only to make the story more believable but to also lay the groundwork for the scenes of high tension. I actually wouldn’t have minded it taking even more time, and allowing things to unfold with the unhurried feel of an actual road trip.

But the film works remarkably well, especially considering that this is the debut feature for Yuen-Carrucan. She has a certain flair and confidence, possibly gained from having worked on crews for films such as Mission Impossible II, The Quiet American, The Last Samurai, and Kill Bill, vol. 1 & vol. 2. Any criticisms I have are quite minor – the odd bit of clunky writing or a few jokes that didn’t work. But she has a fine eye and captures a sense of the characters and the harsh Australian terrain. She has already begun developing her next project and I’m sure it’ll be interesting. She is definitely a talent worth watching.

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