Back in Australia after his disappointing U.S. outing, “Two if by Sea,” writer-director Bill Bennett is in fine form with “Kiss or Kill,” which manages to breathe fresh life into the young-couple-on-the-run road movie thanks to solid scripting, intelligent thesping and a bold sense of humor. Toplining two of the young talents from “Love and Other Catastrophes,” Frances O’Connor and Matt Day, as the runaway lovers, pic downplays sex and violence in favor of well-delineated characterization and nifty plotting that keeps the viewer guessing. Beyond Films should rack up good international sales with this one, with October Films having already grabbed U.S. rights.
Curtain raiser is a shocking scene in which a little girl watches, horrified, as her mother is set afire and burned to death by an intruder. Years later, in Adelaide, the girl, Nikki (O’Connor), is partnered with her lover, Al (Day), in one of the oldest scams of all. She cozies up to lonely men, preferably married ones, in a hotel bar, allows herself to be taken to the strangers’ rooms, then drugs the men and, with Al’s help, robs them.
Her latest victim, however, poses a couple of problems: First, she accidentally gives him an overdose and he expires; second, he’s carrying a videotape showing a celebrated football star involved in pedophile activity.
The lovers decide to escape the heat by heading west in their jalopy, across the desert to Perth, but the celebrity athlete, Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe), is hot on their trail, as are a couple of determined cops, Hummer (Chris Haywood) and Crean (Andrew S. Gilbert).
Thus far, pic plays as a solid and sexy but familiar actioner. But Bennett raises the stakes a notch or two when the kindly Stan (Max Cullen), owner of a motel where the couple stay overnight, is found next morning robbed and with his throat cut. Al suspects Nikki, who disappeared during the night, apparently sleepwalking; she in turn wonders if Al might have killed the man during a botched robbery.
The fugitives steal a four-wheel-drive vehicle and continue their journey, only to discover that Zipper is closer than they thought and that they have an unwanted stowaway, Adler Jones (Barry Otto), who offers them hospitality in the remote trailer he shares with his wife, Bel (Jennifer Cluff). Next morning, the Joneses are also found with their throats cut.
Bennett drives the action and suspense, but finds time to pause for moments of unexpected humor, mostly involving the consumption of food. Using a blowtorch, Stan cooks the lovers fondue dinner; next evening, Jones prepares a tasty dish of kangaroo; the two policemen embark on a bizarre discussion about their private lives over breakfast.
The young leads more than fulfill the promise of their “Catastrophes” roles. They’re backed by a splendid cast of vets, with Cullen marvelously eccentric as Stan, Otto enigmatic as the mysterious Jones, and Haywood in fine form as the lead detective. As his partner, Gilbert provides lots of offbeat humor.
Unusually for a film of this nature, Bennett eschews the use of a music score, but the rich soundtrack by Wayne Pashley and Toivo Lember more than compensates. Malcolm McCulloch’s cinematography is aces, and Henry Dangar adds to the tension by using jagged jump cuts in several key scenes to bold effect.