October 2014

Arts & Letters

Overthinking

By Luke Davies
A journey through time and mind in Hugh Sullivan’s ‘The Infinite Man’

“You want blood and guts?” says Dean (Josh McConville), an intense, over-thinking brainiac who seems to be in the process of losing his girlfriend, Lana (Hannah Marshall), to her ex-boyfriend, Terry (Alex Dimitriades). “I’ll give you blood and guts!”

It’s an empty promise, coming from someone who’s all head and angst. Terry is Dean’s nemesis and opposite in every respect. The ex-Olympic javelinist, who was stripped of his medals due to a drugs scandal and these days sells “hologram bracelets”, is apparently in the habit of referring to his body as the “Vessel for Honourable Use”. Dean has just made the fatal mistake of asking Lana to compare how the two men shape up in bed. Lana sensibly doesn’t want to talk about that, but Dean, ever the masochist, insists. “It’s just – different influences,” says Lana, reluctantly. “Terry’s more … the sex is very … Old Testament. You know, sword and sandals, and all blood and guts.”

“And what would you say my sex influences are?” asks Dean, aghast.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replies Lana. “Dialectical theatre. German philosophy … Um … the metronome?”

In Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man (in national release), Dean is a whirlwind of anxieties who thinks that logic and the application of intellect can solve all problems, even the romantic ones. The film, a slight but clever, cerebral, tightly plotted micro-budget oddity, is about the unravelling of that fallacy.

The film was shot almost entirely in Woomera, South Australia, at a disused accommodation complex that stands in for a now-defunct holiday resort. Dean brings Lana back to the resort, on their anniversary, in the hope of re-creating the supposedly idyllic time they spent there a year earlier. “I hold in my hand the blueprint to a perfect weekend,” says Dean, referring to the schedule of activities he has meticulously timetabled. “And if we follow this very precisely, then —”

But the penny has dropped for Lana: “That’s why we’re dressed in the same clothes as last year.”

It all goes wrong when Terry invades their idyll. An ex whom Lana had never really cared for in the first place, Terry does seem a little dimwitted, despite now and then sprouting lines like, “Eros and Psyche. History. It’s all Mediterranean.” When Lana nonetheless elopes with this brawny man of action, Dean goes into geek overdrive. He spends a full year perfecting his time machine, an “external limbic system” that can return to “the same moment in time, over and over”. His plan, it seems, is to sabotage and circumvent that moment when Lana and Terry depart, and to win her heart afresh.

The film asks the viewer to accept the usual paradoxes inherent in time-travel narratives, and Sullivan achieves no small feat in wrestling with them, reconfiguring them, and imbuing them with a freshness made all the more admirable by such an obviously modest budget; The Infinite Man is crisp and heady, in the fashion of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), but was clearly made for a tiny fraction of even that kind of arthouse money.

In Dean’s version of time travel, characters don’t go back into the past as the same person. Rather, they go back as their present selves and observe their selves from a year earlier. Nothing goes according to plan, and Dean travels back on multiple occasions to fix successive and multiplying problems. After a while, Terry is not Dean’s only threat: this ever-increasing parade of multiple Deans, each vying for Lana’s affections, means, for instance, that the original, anxious Dean (or maybe it’s the Dean from one year later – it gets complicated) has to listen to the exuberant sounds of Lana’s lovemaking with other Deans.

We see the same moments from different angles, as The Infinite Man unfolds its arresting and surprising loop-arounds and time shifts. (It should be noted that the film keeps improving on subsequent viewings, because you get to test its watertightness and enjoy the paradoxes.) “When Terry arrives,” says Dean at one point, “I’ll knock him off the balcony with his own javelin.” “We travelled one year into the past,” counters Lana, “just so you could hit Terry with a stick?”

Elsewhere, Lana asks, “Is that what this is? Just one big revision?” Dean prefers to think of his endeavours as making “improvement[s]”. But gradually the film’s internal logic, seemingly against the odds, fleshes itself out – or at least remains consistent. There are observers on observers on observers, until the film becomes the cinematic equivalent of an MC Escher drawing.

 “It wasn’t the best weekend, was it?” says one of the Lanas (she gets swept up in the time loops too), referring to the day Terry turned up.

“No, it wasn’t,” says Dean – one of the Deans, at least.

“So why do you want to relive it?”

“I don’t want to relive it. I want to change it.”

Though it skips lightly on its feet, and ultimately wears a sunny disposition, The Infinite Man is also a kind of sympathetic homage to that classic twenty-something male, the Overthinker. It makes overt physical comedy of his anxieties while operating as a gentle fable about suffocating relationships.

For all its modest and sweetly executed “comedy of discomfort”, The Infinite Man has some quite sombre and poignant moments, in which it also reveals itself to be – discreetly, quietly – a meditation on mania and mental illness. (“I’m trying to get better,” Dean says, crying. “If I do get better, I’ll come back for you.” “But not now,” says Lana, exhausted, gentle. “It might take some time.”)

Hannah Marshall as Lana nicely absorbs the relentlessness of Dean’s attempts at controlling the world. In the lovely support role, Alex Dimitriades as Terry underplays everything with pitch-perfect insouciance.

Josh McConville, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Ian Bannen, excellently balances his duties: his Dean has an acute awareness of his own obsessive and compulsive ways but knows he’s not very good at doing anything to change them. “I had planned a musical celebration of your Dutch ancestry for about now,” he tells Lana at one point, ripping the activities page into pieces to show her what a spontaneous guy he’s becoming.

“You don’t have to do that —” she begins.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “I have copies. It’s a symbolic gesture.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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