Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Noise (Matthew Saville, 2007)
I had heard mixed messages about this film and went in with an open mind. While there was much to like about it, and while it will undoubtedly have much mainstream appeal, it had many faults that a critical eye can't overlook.

I've always liked Brendan Cowell as an actor. He has a warm down-to-earth knock-about feel about his character. He looks very believable in his role as Police Constable Graham McGahan, and plays it fairly straight - most of the time. There are some occasions when he is too laid back. At those times he becomes too caricatured as a dinky-di Aussie. Cowell doesn't have to do that; he exudes that nature without trying. It drains his character of much of the subtlety that could have really lifted the film, and shows that the director doesn't trust the audience to understand him.


McGahan is suffering a debilitating condition, tinnitus (ringing in the head), that has taken him off regular duties and put him on the boring role of manning a police information caravan that is seeking public information about a killer at large. McGahan is so laid back that he takes no notes when public appear with information. We, the audience, are spoon-fed clues that are available to McGahan and that he should be passing to his superiors, but they've flown right over his head. I don't accept that tinnitus is the cause, because of the other ways in which he is able to function.

In fact, McGahan's character would have been better served not to have any affliction. Saville tries to juggle too many themes into the film that give it a busy feel, but some of the themes aren't sufficiently handled. Other than tinnitus, his wife doesn't need to also be a police officer. They don't need to have conflict. Saville bites off more than he can chew, and it clutters the story somewhat.

Without going into too many spoiling details (and there are many), basically the film lacks subtlety mostly in its handling of the characters. Things are spelt out too clearly, characters are too caricatured. The Senior Constable doesn't need to be a prick. The surviving female victim does not need to be so hysterical, nor diabetic. The lack of subtlety gives the film the feel of a telemovie, which is unsurprising because this is Saville's first feature after a ten year background in TV. I'm not saying it's a bad film, and it's quite good as a first feature. But it is frustrating, because there are many good elements in place that are let down by the flaws.

The characterisations and acting are mostly good, but inconsistent (I put that down to both the direction and writing by Saville). The lighting had many appealing features. McGahan was on evening night shift, so there were lots of dark scenes that looked nice. But, again lacking subtlety, Saville didn't know when enough of a good thing is enough. The film resorted to the pseudo-arthouse shadows and lighting that contemporary American television has become obsessed with and done to death. I say this with complete frustration: police lineups are not done in semi-dark. They are done in bright neon-lit rooms. Police stations and police caravans are not dark places. People sitting in their home in the day don't need to be in the semi-dark.

Arthouse has done arthouse lighting for years, and it's done with realism. The current hackneyed obsession with neo-arthouse lighting on television and cinema is an artificial device that drains a medium of visual verisimilitude. Crash did it, for example, as have countless other Hollywood films. West Wing does it, and it makes it unwatchable for me, regardless of the merit of its content.

There was, however, a fantastic camera sequence that I had never seen done before. It was subtle and effective as the camera moved keeping two characters in frame. But again, enough is enough. We don't need to see it over and again. I had a similar complaint with Copying Beethoven.

Smoking has long been used as a 'cool' device onscreen. This film used it too much. Way too much. A police caravan is a workplace. It's also a public office. I couldn't believe that smoking would be allowed in the caravan. Another small detail that will mean nothing to non-Melbournians but I found distracting: the murders took place on the Lilydale train line, but the police caravan was set up in Sunshine.

Until now I've overlooked a pretty major plot hole. Could a killer shoot everyone on a train carriage except for one person, and this one person be oblivious to it because she's listening to music on an iPod? As this happens at the start of the film, I let this one pass, because I wanted to enjoy the film and believe its premise. But in hindsight, after all the other faults, it doesn't really wash.

Lastly, the finale of the film was mostly well-done, though the helicopter spotlight at the end was gratuitous and fake. Noise was not a bad film, and considerably better and more subtle than most American films in its genre. It had many good ideas that were unfortunately not fully realised. Saville
tooks risks with this film, but didn't fully commit to them. I hope he learns to take more with his next endeavour.

Dir, Scr: Matthew Saville Rating: MA Duration: 108 min Genre: drama/thriller Language: English Country: Australia Release: 3/5/07 Dist: Madman Entertainment Prod Co: Retro Active Films Prod: Trevor Blainey Sound Des: Emma Bortignon Phot: László Baranyai Ed: Geoff Hitchins Prod Des: Miriam Johnson Mus: Bryony Marks Cast: Brendan Cowell, Maia Thomas, Henry Nixon, Nicholas Bell, Katie Wall, Fiona Macleod, Maude Davey, Luke Elliot, Simon Laherty

No official website / IMDB


Anonymous said...

All the people on the train have already been shot BEFORE the girl gets on, which is how she doesn't notice at first. If you're going to write film reviews, you should really watch more carefully, as I found this pretty obvious.

Paul Martin said...

Anonymous, you must have missed the first ten minutes of the film. The girl was sitting in the train carriage listening to music with her head down. It was only when the elderly woman adjacent to her slumps to the ground that she realises anything is wrong. She goes to her aid, realises she is shot and then notices that everyone else is dead.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Paul, but you seem to have misinterpreted the sequence of events at the start of the film. It is the motion of the train which causes the already dead woman to slump to the floor. The notion that the shootings happened between Lavinia entering the carriage and the woman slumping to the ground about twenty seconds later is completely ridiculous, as you have pointed out. However, that is not what happened.

Paul Martin said...

I'm open to the possibility that I'm mistaken (it wouldn't be the first time), but as I recollect, we see the girl enter the almost empty train carriage. There is no sign of bodies, blood, etc. It is only later that we see carnage from one end to the other, which would have been obvious when she entered.

Anonymous said...

why would it be obvious. she has her head down looking at her photo. she doesn't look up until she is seated and the train moves off. the film is about aftermath.

anyway if you want to apply logic tests to every film you see you'll wind up mostly disappointed. its not a documentary its a drama.

Paul Martin said...

Obvious because as we saw later, there were bodies and blood splattered everywhere. She couldn't have missed this entering the train.

At the start, she enters the train and doesn't immediately sit down. The carriage is almost empty and she walks around before sitting down. Most of the passengers must have entered the carriage after she did.

For what it's worth, I've asked a couple of other people who have seen the film; one thought as you did, and one the same as myself.

But it is a minor point; it didn't affect my enjoyment of the film. Just something I noted, dismissed but then recalled it at the end when I thought about many of the flaws.

Anonymous said...

For me, these descriptions are not about right or wrong; they are interesting because they tell us how the human mind is processing the information.

The question of what is believeable and not believable is truly weird. Put your logic hat on and how many films actually stand up? But at the time we are sucked in. We want to accept the premiss.

In writing films, the creators have to balance out the need to nail various story problems against the necessity of telling a story from a point of view.

In this film, for instance, the people of Melbourne would respond very differently to a slaughter on a train. We would be obsessed by it, and it would permeate all parts of public life. Here all that is assumed to be part of the invisible background. But that is a very common device in crime films. They completely shut out the larger social reaction.

- david tiley

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for dropping by, David. Yes, I agree with the gist of your comments, especially "we want to accept the premise". I'll overlook a tonne of faults in my efforts to enjoy a film.

I thought there were many faults in Noise that I was happy to overlook. Sometimes there's a point in time when one decides that one can no longer overlook them. I almost got to that point in Noise, and then the ending came, which was so strong, chilling and unexpected that it lifted the experience for me.

Anyone following this thread may wish to check out David's post about Noise.

Paul Martin said...

And here's yet more dialogue with David Tiley from Barista.

Paul Martin said...

In an email to me, David Tiley, script editor on Noise, in response to the question about whether the passengers died before or after the girl enters the carriage:

Definitely before. There was no intention to communicate anything else.

So I was mistaken and Anonymous was indeed correct.

Anonymous said...

I have just seen Noise - and whilst I found the soundtrack compelling, particularly as an extension of the characterisation and context, and I also like the framing of the shots with references to a number of well known Melbourne visual artists - I also found the film extremely disturbing - not in an obvious sense of violence - but as an insight as to what is considered culturally valid and worthy of public funding, and worthy of driving into a fully realised production

Just as the characters were bleak rootless drifters - the mirror held up to contemporary urban Australian life suggested a strong unease with white Australian culture and the vast unacknowledged anxieties about class and culture in Australia that dominate much of our cultural and intellectual life.

We had a society that painted as bleak and dysfunctional - the detritus of a post Howard workplace - we had essentially fantasy imaging of Australian working class life - as firstly brutal and unforgiving - and then as sentimentally neo-Christian and redemptive ... with the star and the baby - and an alienated overwhelmed likeable cop as a sacrificed Christ - not to mention an aging 2nd AIF digger as holy witness
all this is the fatuous endpoint of the one hand clapping dialogue that we have had for four decades with a dominant, self-indulgent left wing voice in Australian culture and a fatuous, absent lack of answering or challenge from the centre - let alone any intellegient life on the right

Noise is the natural end result of a culture where Paul Keating and Michael Leunig can be routinely mistaken for "great men" ye gods ....

I found it a patronising vision of ordinary Australian life - my brother lives very near those shops - and life in Sunshine is nothing like this film

As a self indulgent fantasy of working class Australian life I found it extremely offensive - if we read it as a director-driven "artistic" vision

If it was meant to be read as "gritty" and realist - it was too baroque and fabricated to ring true

It was riven with stereoptypical anxieties about the police, and also anxieties about ordinary Australians, about sifting the "nice" culturally open people from the repressive rednecks/bogans - a highly simplistic stance -
and yet inconsistent as the director asks for sympathy for the young man in the line-up but sets up the evil redneck to have his ute torched
and also identifies the crazed gunman as a white Australian bogan

As a thriller - it was occaisionally laughable - as someone who rides trains regularly after 10pm to outer suburbs - the whole first scene was redolent of some paranoid fear of suburbia

where are the asian students, the indian students, the office workers with laptops, the ravers dressed up as princesses getting home in time to get up for high school tomorrow, the guy playing bad accoustic guitar, the pensioners of many enthnicities including skips
when violence does break out on late night trains - people often take steps to contain it - as too show concern when someone passes out on the floor and they press the emergency button

there were plot holes big enough to drive a bus through

the public is generally concerned and obsessed with violent crimes and it begs the quetion to suggest that no one dropped a word about a spectacular mass murder to the police

the police harrassment of the female survivor also does not ring true and is another forced plot device

there was a list of anti police stereotypes as long as your arm - even down to the mild corruption of pot smoking policemen - we all "know" that they frequently indulge themselves with confiscated evidence

It has been mentioned on this site that the massacre took place on the Lilydale line - a line to predominantly middle class suburbs and yet the caravan and the substquent unfoldig of the narrative took place in Sunshine and in the Western Suburbs

friends and I argued about whether there were two gunmen - the one imaged on the train in the girl's memory - and the one who catalysed the final sacrifice of the police officer

- there were times when there seemed to be a plot lead given and then it was casually thrown away

and yet there have been people sitting on boards and ticking this project all along

I sort of nearly got it - when the spaghetti western genre was mentioned
that there is no obvious back plot development as in US commercial cinema - only extreme expressionistic situations that the characters are already enmeshed in - and the same sense of rolling drifting - and no resolution beyond the final frame

BUT overall I found this a greatly flawed film and the mainstream level of support for the film as "excellent" a disturbing indication of the vacuity and superficial and stereotypical level of cultural values from the movers and shakers of the artistic vangaurd in Australia

Paul Martin said...

Anonymous, I don't really notice the soundtrack in particular, but as I recall, the music integrated well with the narrative. I thought the cinematography was the strongest aspect of the film, though as I mentioned, certain devices were unnecessarily repetitive which I felt detracted from the freshness of the device. I saw Zodiac on the weekend, and there were some terrific camera devices used and I noted at the time that none of them were repeated like they were in Noise. But then David Fincher is a much more experienced film director than Matthew Saville.

I think in Australia we think of our film industry as a fledgling cottage industry that needs nurturing and encouragement, so a lot of massively flawed films get condescending gushing of praise heaped upon them. In actuality, we have all the artistic and technical elements in place for a mature industry that could be exporting to a world market. Why doesn't this happen? I don't know the answer to this. But other countries, like Korea and France have structures in place to support their respective film industries, and I suspect our country could do similar.

I find it depressing that someone like Alkinos Tsilimidos can make what I consider a flawless film like Em 4 Jay without any artistic compromises, that virtually no-one has seen outside of a film festival. Mostly this is because the distributors and cinemas haven't given it the support it deserves.

While I found Noise highly flawed, it's obviously not aimed at people like you or me. I think it's aimed at the middle-of-the-road movie-goer who will find it grittier than most films they see, and perhaps a little more original than most films that are churned out of Hollywood. There's a market out there, people want these kinds of films, and people are catering to that market. I don't think there's much achieved by bagging this kind of strategy; I just try to avoid as many of these films as I can. While I like to see as many films as possible , life's too short to waste on mediocrity.

I don't know if the film was making any specific comment about Australian culture or class. I didn't look that deep. I didn't think of the ending (with the light and the child) with the symbolism you mentioned, so kudos to you for making that valid connection. However, I don't see a connection with Keating and Leunig, who are both intellectual and spiritual giants (respectively) compared to our current leadership.

I never thought about there being two gunmen, and at a glance that sounds reasonable, though there was only one actor playing both (he had longer hair in the train). In my observation of crime in the news, generally a pattern of crime occurs in one quarter or section of the city. For example, St. Kilda, Oakleigh and Mordialloc. But Sunshine and Lilydale (or anywhere on the Lilydale line) doesn't ring true. It's only a small detail, but it niggled me at the time.

As a point of interest, it seems to be generally accepted that this film is highly flawed, even by people who liked it and support it . It all gets down to how much weight one puts on those flaws. For me, I could still enjoy the film for the moment, but it's not a film that will pass the test of time.

I also had a problem (as I pointed out in my post) with glaring leads being blatantly handed out yet ignored. That was perhaps one of the biggest flaws for me and marked a point in which I couldn't really believe in the narrative.

Finally, while I can agree at least in part with most of your passionate words (and thanks for sharing them), I do think that you're being a little harsh on the poor film. There is a commercial reality which dictates that most films - Australian, American or otherwise - will cater to the mass. I don't think this film is much better or worse than most films that get a release. Sure, it has all kinds of failings, but $100M+ films do too.