Richly informed by the real struggles of Western Australians to overcome legacies of male violence, alcoholism and parental neglect, the visually panoramic yet dramatically intimate “Mad Bastards” manages to wallop and warm at once. That the mostly nonprofessional actors — two of whom are credited as co-screenwriters — have to some degree lived their intense roles lends extra realism to a father-son story that stands to resonate widely despite the cast’s thick Aussie accents. Stateside ticket sales for this IFC Films pickup could get a boost from the pic’s infectious soundtrack of jangly blues-guitar tunes performed onscreen by the Pigram Brothers.
Abandoned near birth by his tough-guy dad, TJ (Dean Daley-Jones), 13-year-old hoodlum Bullet (Lucas Yeeda) is introduced lobbing a Molotov cocktail at a house that subsequently burns to the ground, landing him in juvenile detention in the Kimberley region of Australia. Meantime, in faraway Perth, TJ, built like a linebacker, displays faint hints of adult responsibility, but remains a barroom brawler with a strong taste for drink. Eventually heeding the advice of his jailed brother, another absentee father in a culture that’s full of them, TJ hits the road north to find his son, and perhaps himself as well.
“There’s a little man inside me with an axe,” TJ says in a rare instance of voicing his anger rather than letting it boil over. Bullet, a chip off the old block, naturally gets steamed when his father appears out of the blue after a dozen years. If “Mad Bastards” seems to take a somewhat simplistic approach to its characters’ painful condition, it’s because the nature-vs.-nurture argument proves easier to settle when the latter has never entered the equation.
Making his first dramatic feature, director Brendan Fletcher gives full rein to the dark side of Aussie machismo. Still, the pic’s prevailing theme of the difficulty of men to cool their tempers and articulate their feelings comes in for comic relief in periodic scenes of Bullet’s police officer grandpa, Texas (Greg Tait), presiding over a would-be confessional men’s group in which he’s the only one who talks. Fletcher further lightens the film’s heavy load by squeezing in bouncy musical segments of the Pigrams plucking their strings and singing around campfires while villagers prep food and dance.
The film ends with the actors — including co-writers Daley-Jones and Tait — breaking the fourth wall to put a personal stamp on the pic’s themes.
The dust and heat of Western Australia’s wide open spaces are vividly captured by cinematographer Allan Collins, while Claire Fletcher’s editing deftly balances the film’s bleak and buoyant moods. Phil Judd’s sound mix is adept at spreading the pic’s soulful music across all six channels to settle in the viewer’s bones.