Fast cars...disenfranchised teens...Satanic rituals...loads of sex and violence...clear signs of an exploitative genre spree, right? According to Judge Bill Gibron, Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright has found a far more disturbing setting for these cinematic staples with his 1994 alienated Australian youth epic.
Everything is about to go totally out of control.
When Joe gets a job at the local grocery warehouse, he instantly comes in contact with a pair of co-workers that will change his life forever. The first is Savina, a goofy Goth gal with a penchant for pinching cat food and a real "Devil"-ish desire for the suave, handsome Dazey. The other is the failed race car driver Dazey himself. Joe learns that a girl he once worshipped, a sunny blonde named Roslyn, is Dazey's lover and he strikes up an acquaintance with the cunning cad to get closer to her. Joe loves fast cars and fancies himself a decent gearhead as well. When Dazey invites him along to the railyard for some illegal street racing, Joe accepts and asks Savina along for companionship.
Suddenly, Dazey and his date are all over each other, and Joe has been beaten and humiliated by a carload of jerks who threaten further retaliation. With Roslyn continuing to ignore him and Savina shacking up with his former friend, Joe has no recourse but to return home and deal with his delusion father. At one time, this madman was an Olympic caliber marksman. Now Dad is completely crazy, spending his days chasing imaginary rats and soiling himself. After losing his job, along with Savina, Joe contemplates suicide until the previously threatened gang retribution occurs. Completely destroyed, Joe sees no other way to deal with his downward spiral than to grab Pop's gun and take to the streets. Members of Melbourne society without Metal Skin had better take heed…Joe is desperate and capable of anything…including murder.
Imagine if David Lynch made a version of The Breakfast Club where all the characters were obsessed with reenacting the "cars as king" conceit of Road Warrior and you have a small idea of what Metal Skin is all about. With his deliberately arcane look at Australian suburban culture, combining elements both surreal and sinister, writer/director Geoffrey Wright has managed to create the cinematic equivalent of a horse-cart carrot. As a film, Metal Skin keeps dangling possibilities out in front of you, faint promises of potential dramatic and psychological payoffs that keep you hanging onto the edges of the narrative for dear life. In the end, however, the storytelling treats are not as tasty as the temptation they offered. As an example of modern moviemaking, Metal Skin reminds one of other obscure Aussie efforts like Bad Boy Bubby and Dead End Drive-In. However, with its oddly idiosyncratic style that mandates that every scene have some manner of subversive subtext and all of its performances pitched over into peculiar, we wind up with a very insular experience. If you are willing to dig deep beneath the veneer of violence and pain present in the plot, you might actually connect with the characters. You won't really be entertained, but you will feel that your two hours in front of the TV screen weren't completely wasted.
Part of the problem with Metal Skin stems directly from our inability, initially, to sympathize with the individuals we are invited to follow. After all, Dazey is a womanizing jerk, lost in his own self-pity over injuring his girlfriend Roslyn. She, on the other hand, is still trying to work through her disfigurement at the hands of her car-crashing main man. As a survivor of leukemia, Savina seems strangely sane…that is, until we see the Satan shrine in her bedroom and the sacrificial slaughter of animals in the name of corporeal lust (she longs for Dazey). If there is one person who can possibly guide us through this collection of crackpots, it's fellow freak Joe. Hampered with a deranged immigrant father whose long since lost whatever marbles he originally had, our angry antihero seems destined to live the most dire life one human can possibly be plagued with. Wright must be hoping we sympathize with this wretch, since he piles on the problems (loneliness, bullying, unemployment, drunkenness, and public humiliation) with unbridled glee. By the end of Metal Skin, Joe's actions seem aimed more at the filmmaker than his so-called friends. It's the movie that's most responsible for his misery, after all.
Another issue here is the meaningless, almost mechanical, nature by which Wright drives his narrative. Instead of developing a single story thread or interweaving the plots to create a kind of clockwork ideal, this director simply places one scene after another, hoping they create a kind of aesthetic momentum that will carry the movie forward. Indeed, many of these moments are truly mesmerizing. When Joe goes through his job orientation at the grocery, there's a weird, almost Coen Brothers vibe to the terrific tracking shots. Similarly, Savina's scenes with her mother are almost always electric, considering that Mom thinks God healed her child while daughter is convinced it was the Devil that delivered her from cancer. Wright, however, can't help but fiddle where such cinematic subterfuge is not needed. The entire look of Joe's house, with its indoor garage and castle-like appearance (complete with drawbridge) takes the whole idea of the character living "in his own little world" far too seriously and the whole subculture of drag racing is realized in a manner that references more Moby than Mad Max. While he's guilty of telegraphing his more compelling narrative elements (all that gunplay and talk, as well as all that Satanism, has to go somewhere, right?) and uses his edits for overly arty reasons, Wright does make a compelling visual statement. As is often the case with a movie trying to manage on vision along, the necessary components of storytelling and character get lost.
In the end, Metal Skin will send a decidedly mixed signal to fans of Australian cinema. For those who think the movie is all racing and revved engines, the sex and strangeness abounding will cause them to throw a logic rod. Anyone hoping for a realistic view of mid-1990s life Down Under would be better served by Wright's skinhead drama Romper Stomper (or better yet, Lover Boy, a short film made by the director in 1988). Fans of the coming-of-age genre will consider these directionless slackers the worst kind of aimless idiots. People who prefer their character dramas focused and fulfilling will leave this movie feeling empty and exploited. There is no denying that, somewhere deep down in the very core of Metal Skin, is an amazing movie waiting to come out. What Wright does most of the time, while derivative of Mr. Mulholland Dr. and his moody, menacing magic realism, really keeps us interested in what will happen next. Sadly, telegraphed tragedy is all we get.
Subversive Cinema has decided to deck out this DVD presentation with a full array of excellent technical specifications. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is terrific, delivering a digital image that is colorful, loaded with details, and devoid of any major visual defects. On the sound side, we have the option of listening to Metal Skin in its original Dolby Digital Stereo format or in the far more powerful Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. With all the action scenes and subtle voiceovers, the multi-channel option is definitely the way to go. In addition, the company has larded the disc with several exciting added features, including the previously mentioned Lover Boy (complete with audio commentary), another full-length alternate narrative with Wright and several crew members for Metal Skin proper, a collection of cast bios, a photo gallery, and a nice array of Subversive trailers. Perhaps the best bonus feature here (the commentaries are interesting, if a little dry at times, and Lover Boy suffers from being too short to get Wright's ideas across), is the 30-minute "Making-Of" featurette entitled "Pedal to the Metal." Featuring almost everyone from the original foursome (Ben Mendelsohn, who played Dazey, fails to make the sit-down for some reason), this is a point-by-point discussion of the production from casting to final cut. While we don't see any footage from the film's creation, we do get the gist of what it was like to be part of Wright's weird world.
Metal Skin is an odd one to call. Maneuvering somewhere between a masterpiece and a complete mess, it is a film that definitely deserves a chance to find an audience. Where such a strange demographic can be located will be just one of the many hurdles this hyper-stylized movie must manage. If you don't mind your central characters on the unlovable side and your plotting a little ponderous and problematic, you'll take an instant shine to Wright's ideas. While it's not guilty, all others have been warned: you'll need your own skin of metal to make it through the dire two hours offered here.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Subversive Cinema
• Audio Commentary with Director Geoffrey Wright and Members of the Metal Skin Cast and Crew
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