July 2018

Arts & Letters

Dirty work in Clayton Jacobson’s ‘Brothers’ Nest’

By Shane Danielsen
The filmmakers behind ‘Kenny’ take a darker turn

I remember people being surprised that I liked Kenny. As if it were somehow beneath me, somehow irreconcilable with the Godard- and Bergman-loving poseur they clearly believed me to be. It was irritating.

What wasn’t to like? Sharp, funny and deftly put together by director Clayton Jacobson, the film also boasted a fine lead performance from his brother Shane, who strikes me as one of the more likeable and idiosyncratic Australian actors working right now.

Moreover, it was about work – that great, unspoken subject of modern cinema. About the way our jobs not only plunder our days but also serve to define us as individuals, fixing each of us within a caste system no less rigid for being undeclared. With his overalls and his plunger, and his vivid familiarity with human waste, Kenny was a kind of Untouchable, moving unnoticed among Brahmin society – which might hire him, but would prefer not to have to shake his hand. Released in 2006, the film proved a hit, and it was easy to see why. Aside from the poo jokes, Kenny was an archetype in which many Australians had almost ceased to believe: the principled, capable, fundamentally decent tradie. (The film also contained one of my favourite lines in our national cinema, as Kenny surveyed a particularly toxic septic tank: “There is a smell in here that will outlast religion.”)

More than a decade later, there’s a similar focus on process in Clayton Jacobson’s second feature, the somewhat awkwardly titled Brothers’ Nest (in general release). Starring this time alongside his brother, and dispensing with the faux-documentary technique of his debut, he’s achieved something notoriously tricky: a crime story that’s funny and horrifying in more or less equal measure. But his material preoccupations remain evident. Once again there are gloves and overalls; once again there are sequences of cleaning, logistics, work.

Appropriately, Terry (Shane Jacobson) and Jeff (Clayton Jacobson) are brothers. Their mother (Lynette Curran) is undergoing chemo but has only a few months left to live. Their father committed suicide years earlier, not long after learning of his wife’s affair with Rodger (Kim Gyngell), an avid collector of antique radios and, insofar as Terry and Jeff are concerned, a charmless trespasser in their mother’s affections. (Rodger abandoned his own family to be with her, a compounding sin for which the brothers – and Jeff in particular – have never forgiven him.)

Now the brothers stand to lose the family home, their mother having decided to leave it entirely to Rodger. “He’ll sell it from under us!” Jeff declares angrily. “Before she’s even in the ground.” Their solution? To break into the house before he returns home, murder him and make it look like a suicide by self-electrocution in the bathtub. Providing he complies, of course – if not, they’ll have to frogmarch him to the barn and make him hang himself … unless he really struggles – in which case they’ll murder him and make it look like the work of “ice junkies” surprised in the act of robbing the house.

Yeah. It’s not a foolproof plan.

There’s a healthy dose of the Coen brothers to this effort – specifically, their great 1984 debut Blood Simple. You see it in the mise en scène, that low-angled, restless camera prowling the hallways of the house like an especially hungry cheetah. It’s there, too, in the steady escalation of stakes, the undemonstrative, unrelenting way that its comedy shades darker and darker, until at last you realise, with about half an hour left to run, that you’re no longer watching any kind of comedy at all. All pretence at bonhomie has died; what’s left is a tense, trenchant study of fraternal resentment and scrabbling desperation. (Or, as Terry puts it, “Family shit.”)

Working from a script by Jaime Browne, the film parcels out its disclosures gradually and well. Thus, as the brothers bicker and make amends, plot and reconsider, we discover a number of interesting, entirely plausible things: about the state of their respective relationships, their father’s true nature, why their mother might be acting as she is. All serving to muddy the picture.

For the most part it’s a two-hander, a contest of wills between the siblings. The younger of the two, Terry is a little more hesitant to take a life; when finally he acquiesces, it seems only because he lacks any good reason not to do it. Jeff, meanwhile, the more determined of the pair, loses no opportunity to bully his reluctant partner – asking Terry questions to which he already knows the answer and then berating him when he gets it wrong. Part of the humour, in the early stages, resides in Jeff’s zealous over-preparation and Terry’s reaction to it, and Browne seems to be making a sly satirical point about the consequences of our everything-on-demand information age, in which Wikipedia research and watching television obviate the need for moral consideration. Most of Jeff’s notions of criminal behaviour seem to come from shows like CSI and NCIS. Murder, for him, is nothing more than a “cold open”, a way of kickstarting the real story.

In terms of cultural archaeology, Brothers’ Nest is remarkably well observed. There are moments here that will ring absolutely true to pretty much anyone with a mother, aunt or gran. (“Do you have a single memory,” Jeff asks Terry, “of Mum ever opening or taking anything out of that fucking crystal cabinet?”) But there’s also something affecting – and very Australian – about the way sadness intrudes on every exchange. The best scene in the film, to me, is a long conversation between the brothers in the lounge room of the family home, recalling earlier times spent in it, moments both awful ( Jeff’s mum slapping him at his father’s wake for taking an extra slice of cake) and triumphant ( Terry scoring his first kiss from Chrissie Holt on the settee).

We see them each sit for a moment, lost in their separate memories. And then Jeff speaks again. “I fucking hate this room,” he snaps.

Of the two, Shane is perhaps the more natural actor; there’s occasionally something a little stiff about Clayton’s line-readings. But together they present a fascinating study in contrasts. They’re both big men, but there’s something fastidious and almost delicate about Jeff’s manner. It’s the tell of someone who believes himself several degrees more adept than he actually is. By contrast, Shane, as Terry, is slouched, ponderous – so credibly a suburban everyman as to make even the schlubbiest American stars look like show ponies.

Credit must also go to their castmates. With his untidy hair and sunken cheeks, Kim Gyngell has begun to resemble the late John Hurt, and between his superb comic turn in Josh Lawson’s The Little Death (one of the most underrated Australian films of this decade) and his rumpled, needling performance in this one, he’s finally being given roles worthy of his considerable talent. Lynette Curran, meanwhile, has been an essential part of many of my favourite Australian films, from Bliss (1985) and The Year My Voice Broke (1987) right through to Somersault (2004). But her work here ranks among her very finest, taking the bogan intensity of her performance in The Boys and finding within it yet untapped reserves of scorn, vitriol and contempt. It’s a brief, corrosive appearance – almost a cameo – but it burns through everything around it.

I’m all for introducing legislation that limits filmmakers to two drone shots per feature, and the frequent aerial cutaways here feel especially unnecessary. They fail to make it look more cinematic, which is presumably the point (Peter Falk’s shadowy, rich-hued cinematography is already taking care of that), and serve to dilute the claustrophobic intensity of what’s happening inside the house.

And after some sparse, excellent scoring from composer Richard Pleasance, there’s an original song about 20 minutes before the end that sticks out, tonally, like a pair of dog’s balls. What’s more, its lyrics editorialise so blatantly that they might as well be singing “He just killed him – did you see? Now he’s about to kill again.” (In case you think I’m exaggerating, it actually includes the lyric “We made a choice, we crossed the line.”) Similarly, the song playing over the closing credits – helpfully entitled “Prison Bound” – only just stops short of thanking the viewer for coming and wishing them a safe drive home.

Not faultless, then. But what it is, refreshingly, is smart – not only in terms of its plotting, the steady drip-feed of information and clarification, but also in the intelligence it extends to its characters. There’s an annoying tendency for filmmakers to stack the deck against their amateur criminals: to show characters so imbecilic they barely seem capable of converting oxygen to carbon dioxide. (Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, in which every character elects at every juncture to do the stupidest possible thing, represents a particularly egregious example of this.)

Brothers’ Nest doesn’t do that. Terry and Jeff aren’t geniuses, by any means – but they’re not cretins either. What defeats them, in the end, isn’t poor preparation, or even their own cupidity, but a simple combination of lousy luck and the sheer, unpredictable messiness of everyday life – a theme that finds a neat visual analogue in Robert Perkins’ cluttered production design. Shit just happens: a blizzard of details – the forgotten birthday, the acrimonious reunion. The startling discovery, the impulsive act. All the casual cruelties and moments of grace, the score-settling and one-upmanship that make up an ordinary life. Or a family.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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