Trigger warning: mentions of suicide
For as long as there have been stories, lost souls have run away into the woods both literal and metaphorical. Dark and mysterious places where strange characters reside, conflict is inevitable and the past has a habit of crashing headlong through the undergrowth. So it is with The Rooster, now screening at MIFF, with The Night Agent actor Phoenix Raei roiling in the muddy sludge of dirty old eaves.
Overdue a meaty leading role on the big screen and wearing it well, Raei plays Dan, a sullen, solitary country cop whose little moments of joy mostly come from feeding a rampaging rooster who cares not for him nor his fingers. And yet, this feisty feathered fighter appears in Dan’s haunted dreams. The Rooster opens on a startling, Melancholia-like delirium depicting a body swinging in the wind. Illuminated by the staccato blue flash of Dan’s cop car, inscrutable radio transmissions crackling in the ether, it’s parked on one side of a great, naked-branched tree, a huffing grey horse kicking at the dirt on the other side. Who is the naked woman who appears, clutching a rooster to her breast as if this was the virgin birth come again?
Captured with startling clarity by cinematographer Craig Barden, whose work is impeccable throughout, this arresting vision tells us exactly as much and as little as any half-remembered reverie from the night before, melting into the limpid dawn. A lot happens in the furrowed brow etched on Raei’s face. He’s a man bearing a lot on his shoulders, not least of which involves keeping a constant vigilant eye on his best mate Steve (Rhys Mitchell) a fellow wanderer who has a habit of appearing exactly where it’s least appropriate to strip off and bathe naked in the pale winter’s light.
Nudity is a soul undressed in actor-turned-writer-director Mark Leonard Winter’s at times bleakly comic debut feature. When an alarmed teacher protests that Dan can’t simply allow Steve to wander around in the buff, shepherding him home every other day, she sighs that at least it all happened so quickly the high schooler playing netball nearby probably didn’t realise, only to be swiftly rebuffed by one of the young women hollering, ‘I saw his dick, lock him up officer.’
This spot where sorrow strikes mirth ignites when tragedy drives Dan deep into the woods where his friend is discovered uncovered in a shallow grave, prompting fellow coppers to wonder aloud why Dan never sectioned him. Steve appears again, clucking like that fisticuffs rooster in another of the unnerving trances Dan’s disturbed sleep brings.
Stumbling, quite literally drunk and at his wits end, toying with his gun, into the woods as much to lose himself as find answers, like so many characters before him, Dan discovers a naked Hugo Weaving’s cantankerous hermit bathing in the firelight emanating from a ramshackle cabin. Weaving, having a ball letting it all hang loose, is the perfect foil for Raei’s bewildered straight man. His profane pugilism, much like Dan’s rooster, kicks the film into a stark form of odd couple territory fused with a dash of Trainspotting and the off-kilter camaraderie of Bad Boy Bubby.
That dynamic creeps into the self-defeating blast of a shotgun which denies Weaving’s alcoholic hermit the sweet release of the bottle of vodka he snipes from Dan’s trembling hands. It’s there in the ocker ‘awwww nooaow’ that becomes a shared catchphrase, and when a suggested game of ping pong in this desolate clearing perfunctorily punctuates a deeply sacrilegious piss break. So too in a kapow to the face deliberately disproving a feeling of deathly disconnection and piss funny POV rooster attacks.
But there’s heartache a-plenty too. Both men are wounded but resist letting the other one in. This is very much a film about those who cannot admit their deepest wounds, getting there slowly but unsurely through bloody belligerence. As such, it can be a tough ask at times, but both Raei and Weaving are magnificent, carrying us with them. Winter’s generous enough to allow them the space to ramble in what can feel a little like a stage play. If this results in a slight lull before the final act of grace and a tendency to give too much away in a film in which spectral hauntings suggest mystery is best, it’s forgivable. The Rooster crows loud at daybreak, announcing an exciting new filmmaking talent.
The Rooster is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival
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