David Caesar’s third feature isn’t as gritty and confronting as his second, “Idiot Box,” or as gentle as his first, “Greenkeeping,” but it’s a strongly focused portrayal of small-town life in Australia and, probably, small-town life anywhere. Distinguished by a fine ensemble of well-cast actors all giving precise, low-key portrayals, pic poses questions about the problems of getting on with other people in an increasingly globalized yet increasingly unfriendly world. A small but potent film, “Mullet” deserves successful niche release runs in major centers Down Under, but critical support will be essential. Internationally, fests should take a look at this deceptively small-scale item, and quality TV networks should also be interested.
The title refers to a lowly fish that few people want to eat, but it’s also the nickname given to the central character, Eddie (beautifully played by Ben Mendelsohn), who comes home to the fictional town of Coollawarra (pop. 1,491), a small fishing community south of Sydney.
Opening and closing scenes are narrated by Kay (Belinda McClory), who has owned the local bar ever since the previous owner, her mother, took off with a salesman. Kay is, in effect, the writer-director’s spokesperson as she lays out the film’s underlying themes: The prawn catch isn’t what it used to be, the town isn’t prospering, and, though people in Coollawarra try to get on with one another, it isn’t easy.
Eddie had walked out on family and friends abruptly and has spent the past three years in Sydney out of touch with everyone in his home town. In the film’s opening sequence, he hitchhikes into Coollawarra and moves into an abandoned trailer he seems to have lived in before. He very quickly discovers that Tully (Susie Porter), the girl he left behind without a word of explanation, has, in his absence, married his brother, Pete (Andrew S. Gilbert), the local cop.
She’s living with him in a modern, soulless house, and is obviously pretty bored, and is unwilling to have the children her husband craves.
Not surprisingly, Tully, who works at the town kindergarten, and Pete have mixed feelings about the prodigal’s return, as do Eddie’s squabbling parents, Col (Tony Barry) and Gwen (Kris McQuade), who barely communicate with one another, and his sister, Robbie (Peta Brady) who manages the fish shop. Nobody really knows what he did while he was away — there are rumors he was a footballer in Sydney, a journalist in London or a producer in Hollywood.
Eddie isn’t very communicative; at first he seems to be deliberately annoying his erstwhile family and friends, and he claims he hasn’t really returned — he’s just visiting. It just seems as though he wants to pick up the pieces where he left off, but it’s obviously much too late for that. Kay, who invites him to sleep with her one night (as, she confesses, she’s previously asked most of the men in town), is alienated by his lack of responsiveness.
Caesar subtly portrays the uneasy interactions between these sad and lonely people in a series of beautifully written and acted scenes that are sharply framed for the wide screen by debuting dp Robert Humphreys. Music is also used in interesting ways, with the characters occasionally softly singing to express their feelings. Unhappiness is endemic in the town. Pete seems tired and fearful, Robbie is suffering from a sexual disease (“Who’d be a woman?”), Kay is unable to find fulfillment with the men she casually sleeps with, and certainly not with Eddie, while the greatest thing in Col’s life seems to be his new flush toilet.
And yet the film is by no means as gloomy as it sounds, with its acknowledgment that there’s always the possibility, even probability, that things will get better. Eddie came home because that’s where he belongs and, though he doesn’t make it easy for people to like him, the film ends on a note of optimism.
Thesping is on the button down the line, with Mendelsohn (seen recently in “Vertical Limit”) terrific as the laconic, at times infuriating, hero. Belinda McClory is a stand-out as the disappointed Kay and hot young actress Susie Porter (“Better Than Sex,” “The Monkey’s Mask”) brings depth to the role of the disappointed Tully.
Film has an expansive feel while lacking surface slickness; instead, the rather grainy images match the mood of life in this dying backwater.