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Transfusion on Stan review: interrogating masculine clichés

Sam Worthington stars in this solid crime thriller that hits its genre beats well and has impressive moments despite its lower budget.

Transfusion is an age-old story of manly men doing manly things. But these men are brittle, struggling; the lack of women in their lives is an open wound. It’s a thriller that delivers plenty of genre thrills while being thoughtful and downbeat. It’s about the man behind the trigger as much as it is about why he’s pulling it – though rest assured, triggers do get pulled.

After an Iraq War sequence that efficiently establishes the lethal credentials of SAS sniper Ryan Logan (Sam Worthington), we jump forward to him taking a post-combat camping trip with his young son Billy (Gilbert Bradman). Billy isn’t exactly nailing the whole stereotypical masculinity thing: he won’t shoot a deer, cuts himself while sharpening a knife and nearly gets chewed up by a wild dog. Ryan sees beyond that. As he says, sometimes refusing to kill can be just as brave as pulling the trigger.

Often that kind of line is there to provide the illusion that what follows isn’t a celebration of cold-blooded murder, and yes, Ryan does end up putting a number of people in the ground over the following 100 minutes. But writer/director/co-star Matt Nable is interested in interrogating, rather than just celebrating, the clichés of masculinity inherent in this story. Here, crime is a last resort, and being good at it isn’t something to be proud of.

Gilbert Bradman and Sam Worthington in Transfusion. Image: Stan

The grand scheme

When we jump forward again several years, things have gone off the rails. With his wife (Phoebe Tonkin) gone Ryan is now a single father and something of a drifter, having moved cities a number of times since leaving the military. Billy (now played by Edward Carmody) has the kind of criminal record that doesn’t leave him much room for mistakes. Even his private school principal tells Ryan that his money might be better spent elsewhere.

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As for how he makes that money, Ryan works as a sale rep for a wine company, which is exactly the kind of no status job a lethal fighting machine should not have. The genre demands he gets no respect until he displays his edge and reveals the predator within; Worthington’s performance and Nable’s script make these moments seem more failure than triumph. And when former SAS buddy Johnny (Nable), now similarly discharged and at a loose end, turns up with a dubious job offer, the overwhelming vibe is one of dread.

Under a wintery Sydney sky the usual crime thriller beats are handled well. What sets this apart is the focus on the fragile nature of these competent killers. Ryan is haunted by his past, but it’s not combat or his numerous executions that keep him up at night. His skills aren’t who he is; Johnny can’t say the same, and his need to keep using those skills outside of the military drags the both of them down.

Still from Transfusion. Image: Stan

A competent debut

Nable, who makes his directing debut here, is a sure hand right out the gate. There’s a choice early on to bluntly show the kind of big moment that low budget films often edit around, and it feels like a statement of intent. This is a film that tells its story plainly and well, making each point directly then moving on.

Johnny seems a character ex-rugby player Nable’s played before, though this version is a bit more emotionally fragile than his gun-for-hire on Mr Inbetween or his jovial smash-and-grab expert in Russell Crowe’s recent Poker Face. They had a lid on things, but PTSD has a grip on Johnny, and he’s not a man you can relax around.

Across from him, Worthington presents Ryan as centred even when things are going wrong, his rare emotional outbursts authentic and fully justified. Stillness is an action hero trait going back to Clint Eastwood, and Worthington does it well; it’s one of the few traditional masculine traits presented here as a pure positive.

Compact and competent, this is a thriller that delivers where it counts. It’d be a striking debut for Nable if he wasn’t already one of the busiest men in Australia’s film industry. Here’s hoping he finds time to direct again, and soon; Transfusion is the kind of fresh blood we can always use more of.

Transfusion is available to stream now on Stan.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.