A few good words (but only a few) about ‘The Hard Word’ | AspenTimes.com

A few good words (but only a few) about ‘The Hard Word’

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

As a caper movie, which it is, “The Hard Word” is a middling effort. The Australian film, written and directed by Scott Roberts, spends little time on the crucial element of a caper film ” the preparations. Both of the heists pulled in “The Hard Word” are practically sprung on the audience with no buildup. Even the participants in the two jobs seem to have been given only the sparest details by their handlers. It goes against the grain and “The Hard Word” lacks that tension and attention to intricate detail that comes with most every good caper film.

If “The Hard Word” were only a caper flick, that flaw would be fatal. But it isn’t. Instead Roberts, a veteran screenwriter who makes his directing debut here, makes a mighty effort to give his film a human touch by developing his characters. He is successful in this, though not fantastically so.

At the center of “The Hard Word” are the Twentyman brothers, three career criminals who are first introduced in their natural habitat ” prison. Dale, played by a virtually unrecognizable Guy Pearce, is a jailhouse intellectual, the keeper of the prison library with enough book smarts to provide commentary on “Portnoy’s Complaint.” “The wanker’s bible,” he informs another inmate. Mal (Damien Richardson) is cheery, portly and a bit slow, but he is much admired inside the walls for his butchering skills. He makes some killer sausage. Shane (Joel Edgerton) is a densely muscled, psychopathic time bomb, forever ready to explode. Roberts, you see, has gone to lengths making certain there is no overlapping among the three, other than the shared credo to spill as little blood as possible.

The two key players on the outside are Dale’s wife, Carol (Rachel Griffiths, and like Pearce, almost impossible to identify, done up as a trashy, busty platinum blonde), and Frank (Robert Taylor), a criminal lawyer ” and lawyer criminal ” as trustworthy as a snake. With Dale in the joint, Carol and Frank have formed an alliance that seems to be the source of some minimal pleasure. More to the point, Carol craves Frank’s money, and Frank craves Carol’s body.

Frank, with contacts amongst both the criminal and law-abiding, manages to spring the brothers for a quickie armored-car gig. In an almost literal blink of an eye, the three have shot a guard, gassed the couriers and commandeered the vehicle; the lunch they had prior to the job, in which Shane abuses the waitress, is given more screen time. But here it is effective: We understand that this is a preliminary job, meant to impress us with how coordinated a unit the Twentyman brothers make.

But something has gone wrong with the job, the brothers are told by Frank’s associates on the police force. So it’s back inside ” for their own protection, they are assured. Frank can spring them again, on condition they agree to do one last job.

It is, of course, a big one. Frank has devised a plan to rob the bookies of their money on the day of the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s biggest horse race. The plan is absurdly slipshod in its details: for instance, the brothers are introduced to their accomplices mere hours before the heist. It not only feels unreal to the audience, but also turns the job into an unacceptable bloodletting. Filmwise, the caper is handled decently, but it almost seems an afterthought. And even more so when the escape ” livened by Mal meeting the woman of his dreams, the owner of the car they steal ” becomes a highlight of the film.

The brothers make their successful getaway, but there is a hitch left to be handled: Frank, who must answer for a) botching the Melbourne Cup job; b) swiping the loot for the brothers; c) taking up with Dale’s wife; and d) generally being a piece of crap. His demise is inevitable, but who ends up pulling the trigger is an eloquent surprise.

As noted, Roberts tries to squeeze much character development into “The Hard Word.” And sometimes it does feel like a squeeze. Carol, in particular, is given latitude to demonstrate her various loyalties, vulnerabilities and complexities. The attention might have been better used on ratcheting up the intensity of the capers. Shane, in a show of unfocused energy that characterizes the film, is sent off to see a prison therapist, a woman with whom he has a brief romantic interlude.

The time spent on Dale, however, is well worth it. He comes off as the proverbial criminal with his own code of honor stronger than that of the legit world. He can be a vengeful badass, but he sticks hard to the ethos that buddies don’t double-cross one another, brothers stay united, spouses remain faithful.

Guy Pearce takes the opportunity of playing Dale to prove again that he is one of the very best actors of his day. Pearce was good in “L.A. Confidential,” exceptional in “Memento,” and exceptional here again, giving Dale a fierce but thoughtful quality that is all edges. Too bad the same can’t be said of the capers in “The Hard Word.”

Along with the character studies, Roberts gives “The Hard Word” a labored stylishness, one with a big nod to Tarantino ” touches of surf guitar in the soundtrack, and a knack for cutting the violence with humor.

Like the Melbourne Cup job, the movie is basically successful, but not exactly worth celebrating.

“The Hard Word” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 1-2, at 7:30 p.m.

Wheeler flicks

Here is the rest of the Wheeler Film schedule for the month of November:

French filmmaker Claire Denis’ “Friday Night,” about a one-night stand that turns into a memorable affair, shows Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 4-5. “Alias Betty,” a French psychological thriller, will be screened Nov. 7-9.

“In This World,” Michael Winterbottom’s film about two young Afghan refugees trying to escape to London from the Pakistani border, is set for Monday through Wednesday, Nov. 10-12. The film, which uses nonprofessional actors and blurs the lines of documentary and fiction, earned the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

“Mambo Italiano,” an uplifting story in the spirit of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” set in Montreal’s Italian quarter, will be screened Nov. 13-16. French director Claude Chabrol’s 50th feature film, “The Flower of Evil,” a rip at the sins of a wealthy family, is set for Nov. 19-21.

“The Singing Detective,” starring Robert Downey Jr. as a misanthropic screenwriter imagining a script from his hospital bed, shows Nov. 22-24. “On Guard!” a French swashbuckler, is scheduled for Nov. 25-26. The calendar concludes Nov. 30 and Dec. 1-2 with “Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion,” a documentary about the history and current struggles of Tibet.

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