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swerve

By this point in cinematic history, you’d think that nice guys would know better than to pick up suitcases/briefcases/duffle bags that don’t belong to them. You know the scoop: nice, upstanding, morally sound dude (usually a happy married father with a couple of adorable kids) comes upon a crashed car/plane/snow mobile/yak and notices said mysterious package. Said package will usually contain either money or drugs (sometimes both), which the nice, upstanding fella will then take with him. Since packages of drugs and/or money usually aren’t left around for the general populace to find, some bad dude will, inevitably, come looking for the package. The bad dude won’t find it, of course, since the nice guy will be traipsing around with it, trying not to let whatever is in there corrupt his wholesome nature. If these guys are lucky, they’ll end up in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998), where bad things happen to good people in some very ingenious ways. If our poor schmucks aren’t lucky, however, they’ll end up in Craig Lahiff’s Swerve (2011), an Aussie who-dunnit (kind of) that manages to mash Fargo (1996) and No Country For Old Men (2007) together into a pretty uninspired ball of Wonder Bread. As always, the nice guy really should kept his hands to himself.

Colin Holland (David Lyons) is one of those aforementioned nice guys, although he missed the memo about needing a cute, spunky family. Nonetheless, Colin is traveling through the backroads of Australia when he comes upon two crashed cars: one is upside down and features a dead man in a white suit (always a giveaway, if you think about it) and a suitcase full of money, while the other one features a comely young lady (Emma Booth), shaken but, otherwise, intact. Since Colin is both nice and kind of dumb, he takes the money and gives the young lady, Jina, a ride to her place. Fair enough. Colin then decides to head to the nearest town – to the nearest bar, to be accurate – and see about getting some law enforcement involvement for the dead guy. Colin has the great fortune to find Frank (Jason Clarke), a sheriff so corrupt that you can smell it through his handshake. Colin tells him about the dead guy, gives him the money and gets an invitation to come stay at Frank’s place. On the way, Colin gets to thinking it’s a little familiar…and it is, of course, because this is just where he dropped off Jina. If you guessed that Jina is actually some kind of an android that Frank keeps around to do chores, you’re in the wrong film. If you guessed that the sultry, ultra-flirtatious femme fatale is married to the corrupt sheriff, well…you may just be too quick for this one, folks. Simmer down, over there!

As Colin gets more and more involved with Frank and Jina, he starts to uncover all kinds of unsavory realities: Jina may not be faithful! Frank may not be a true-blue cop! That money may belong to bad people! Actually, we already know that last part, since we saw the elaborate cross/double-cross in the first few minutes of the film that led to the White Suit BBQ. Any time a suitcase of money involves a bomb, a drug deal and a car crash, we can pretty safely assume its “non-taxable” income. In short order, a mild-mannered blonde gentleman shows up and proceeds to Anton Chigurh the living shit out of everybody (particularly impressive is the scene where he drops a car on a mechanic’s head: suck it, cattle gun!), all on his way to retrieve the missing money. When psycho meets psycho, however, it’s gonna be a real bloodbath…and Frank is so south of sane that he’s on the opposite pole. As if all this isn’t enough, Colin discovers that Jina may have killed her former lover, one of Frank’s deputies. Or perhaps Frank did it. Or what about Jina’s skeezy boss, Sam (Vince Colosimo), who seems to have something out for Frank? What’s a nice guy to do when everybody seems to be giving you the business? If you’re Colin, it just might be time to get the hell out of the Outback.

In most cases, Swerve is completely middle-of-the-road, a thoroughly average “mystery” that’s more average than mysterious. Truth be told, the film suffers from the exact same problem that sinks most zombie films: unless you’re doing something radically different (or drastically better than everyone else), there’s just no way to differentiate one of these from the others. Zombie films attempt to vary this up by switching up the locations, making the zombies good guys, adding elements of comedy/romance/musical/etc…whatever it takes to make one stand out from the pack. The films that don’t do this, by default, end up seeming so generic as to be factory-made: perhaps anonymous zombie pictures would have been more of a novelty in the early-mid-’70s but by this point in the 2000s, it’s all pretty much been seen/done before.

This, then, is Swerve’s biggest problem: it takes several genre tropes (the mysterious suitcase of case, the femme fatale, the crooked sheriff, the small-town with a secret, the innocent but unlucky drifter) and serves them up as-is, as fresh as stale bread. There’s no sense of invention, nothing to set this above (or below, in many ways) a hundred other similar films. Unlike other Australian crime films, the actual setting doesn’t really affect the story: it could have been the American South, the British Isles or the African veldt and it would have made the same difference. I certainly don’t expect Australian films to be awash in kangaroos and didgeridoos but there seems to be precious little Australian identity here whatsoever: the setting ends up being as generic as the rest of the film.

As a mystery, Swerve is almost a complete mess, filled with so many crosses and double-crosses that the plot takes on too many holes and sinks like a stone. By the time we get to the rather ridiculous “twist” ending, which really does come out of left field and means absolutely nothing, we’ve already had to sit through so many film noir-lite moments that it all feels arbitrary. At first, I was disappointed that I’d missed the clue’s that pointed to the “real” mastermind. This was, of course, until I realized that there were no clues: how could there be…the character in question is only in the film for about three minutes altogether and never mentioned or alluded to by anyone. It’s a Perry Mason moment (how do you know who’s guilty? Ask ’em in court and they’ll be happy to spill the beans) in that it’s just dropped into our laps, a gift from the movie gods.

Craft-wise, the film is pretty content to stick to the middle-road established by the plot: this is basic, no-frills filmmaking (with a little more editing “flair” than I usually prefer in films) with competent acting and not much else. Jason Clarke is pretty slimy as Frank but David Lyons is pretty ridiculous as Colin. Lyons plays Colin like a cross between a white knight, Colin Ferrell and Forrest Gump, blending in so many disparate elements of sweet/naive/stupid/smoldering that he ends up completely without personality: all colors combine to create the blandest white possible. Poor Emma Booth has the misfortune of channeling Tara Reid throughout the film, which did nothing for her credibility whatsoever. Jina is one of those ridiculous “sexpot” characters that really only work in very old films or very self-aware ones: Swerve is neither and just comes across as frustratingly mercurial and fickle. The blonde hitman (sorry, buddy: you were never named in the film, which may have been some sort of genius plan, on your part) is patently ridiculous, coming across like some sort of twiggy Termnator even before we get the Terminator-esque scenes where Frank takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’…and keeps on…and keeps on…and on…

As I find myself saying quite a bit, Swerve isn’t the worst film you’ll see all year: it probably won’t even be in the bottom 30. That said, there’s absolutely nothing to distinguish this in any way or to make it worth seeking out. Unless you’re on some kind of an insane quest to see every film every made (which, of course, I am), there won’t be much of a reason to slow down and give this the once-over twice. Better to spend your 90 minutes elsewhere, perhaps looking for your own mysterious suitcase out in the desert.

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