A combo of dark suburban drama, absurdist social comedy and violent crime thriller, “The King Is Dead!” reps a radical change of pace for Aussie arthouse helmer Rolf de Heer (“Ten Canoes”). For most of its duration an engaging and entertaining yarn about a yuppie couple driven to distraction by the drug-dealing party-animal living next door, pic loses a little of its luster with uneasy tonal shifts in the final act. Nontraditional fest fare that fits somewhere between niche and commercial arenas, “King” will first test the waters in limited release Down Under on July 12. Offshore prospects are iffy.
In his first feature since 2007 silent comedy “Dr. Plonk” (an Internet-only production, “12 Canoes,” was launched in 2008), de Heer accentuates the twisted humor that’s bubbled beneath the surface of many of his films. With its profanity-laced dialogue and clash between a marginalized key character and “straight” society, the tone of “The King Is Dead!” sometimes recalls that of de Heer’s 1993 success “Bad Boy Bubby.”
At the center of “King” are the nonconfrontational figures of Max (Dan Wyllie), an easygoing science teacher, and his partner, Therese (Bojana Novakovic), a tax accountant. Playing like a slightly offbeat sitcom, early scenes show the happy couple buying a large house in a leafy Adelaide suburb and making friends with lovely neighbors Otto (Roman Vaculik), Maria (Michaela Cantwell) and their young daughter, Mirabelle (Lilly Adley, adorable).
The big problem for Max and Therese is their other next-door neighbor, King (Gary Waddell), a nuggety, 60-ish oddball whose rundown property serves as a 24-hour party venue for every scuzzy drug dealer and gangsta rap-loving ne’er-do-well in town.
Initially portraying Max and Therese as tolerant to a fault, the screenplay extracts laughs and produces tension from the couple’s increasingly nervous and angry reactions to screams in the night and encounters with King’s scary friends Shrek (Luke Ford) and Escobar (Anthony Hayes). One clever dramatic trick is that King may be an eccentric who keeps particularly low-rent company, but he does not appear to be malevolent. Waddell’s spot-on perf keeps the character human, and even evokes a strange sympathy for the financial and emotional stress he claims to be suffering.
The story ambles along nicely to the point where Max and Therese become so frustrated by police inaction they decide to break into King’s house and frame him for a crime. The first stages of the ineptly executed plan work fine, but the sudden appearance of a Maori gang boss (Lani John Tupu) prompts extremely brutal violence that some auds may find offputting.
Smooth lensing by regular collaborator Ian Jones and a slinky jazz-flavored score by Graham Tardif (his 11th collaboration with de Heer) are major plusses of a pro tech package. De Heer’s rap lyrics for the oft-heard party house tune “Ah’m the One!” are hilarious.