Review by William J. Hammon, of the I Actually Paid to See This blog
Disclaimer: This review contains plot information that some may interpret as mild spoilers. Discretion advised.
The most daring thrillers in modern cinema history are the ones that engage their audiences on real, visceral terms, presenting a story that may be over-the-top, but at its core has believable characters and doesn’t shy away from the harsh truths of the world. That’s what director John Balazs brings to the table with the Australian neo-noir, Rage. It’s empathetic and refreshingly raw when it comes to telling its traumatic story, not pulling any punches and therefore drawing the audience in to what is, at its core, a simple revenge plot.
The tone is set from the opening scene, where married couple Noah and Madeline (Matt Theo and Hayley Beveridge, respectively) are seen pouring gasoline into a freshly dug hole and lighting a match. As fire roars from the pit, we already know we’re checking in at or near the ending, and are about to see what led to this moment. It’s a common trope, one that takes a little of the suspense out of some later action sequences because we know the two will survive to at least reach this point, but it’s artfully done and immediately keys you in to the mystery about to unfold.
Various pieces are then introduced into the overall game board. Noah is having an affair with one of his coworkers (Natasha Maymon), and Madeline is being followed by two unseen men in a car. A private investigator (Jasper Bagg) gives her his business card with the ominous tagline of “You never know who you can trust.”
For fans of classic film noir, this is some expert-level table-setting, because it can go just about anywhere. It could be a tale of romantic melodrama, or blackmail, or espionage, or any number of other possibilities, all of which suggest a satisfying conclusion based on the setup. Given the two and a half hour runtime of the film, creating that kind of universal tease is a delicate art.
And then the hammer drops. While discussing her misgivings and doubts with her sister, Madeline is attacked by two masked men in one of the most brutal scenes of graphic violence you can imagine, with Noah arriving home in time to put up a fight before being incapacitated. The attack is shocking, almost vile in its presentation, but that’s what makes it so compelling. Nothing is held back. It’s a harrowing scene on par with Lupita Nyong’o’s beating in 12 Years A Slave, the kind of depiction that can almost be traumatic just to watch, much less for the people involved. And on a technical level, it’s just spectacular. The makeup effects crew deserve some serious kudos for the stark realism of the entire sequence.
The incident leaves Noah comatose for a month and Madeline traumatised to the point of not being able to speak. Police detective John Bennett (Richard Norton) and his two assisting officers can make little headway in the investigation without Madeline’s help, and his wife Elizabeth (Tottie Goldsmith), a psychiatrist, can’t help Madeline until she’s willing. Meanwhile, her trauma is so vivid, represented by seeing masked assailants everywhere she looks, that you feel the pain yourself, and in doing so are locked in for the duration, not only in hoping that Madeline eventually gets justice, but in the fact that you can’t help but look for clues that might be hiding in plain sight.
That’s the mark of a really well done noir. It’s not just about depicting the darkness of humanity, but making an audience want to explore it. It also helps that the ensemble cast, while fitting into a fair few genre archetypes, gets enough development to subvert the cliches that can sometimes bog them down. Noah is a philanderer, but his remorse is genuine, and his commitment to getting revenge for Madeline reassures us that he’s legitimately changed his ways. Private investigator Randy Cooks has been disgraced, and he seems keenly interested in the outcome of this case, but you can’t tell if it’s to redeem himself or because of something potentially more sinister. Noah’s mistress Sophia initially comes off as a femme fatale, but ultimately takes steps to extricate herself from the situation rather than perpetuate it. Not only do these traits keep you guessing as to the final resolution, but in a vacuum they serve as some refreshing character development not often seen in the genre.
It all works because there are no easy answers in life, and there certainly aren’t easy answers in this film. There’s a verisimilitude both in the raw, visceral depictions of criminal violence, but also in the completely human reactions in the aftermath. Not everyone acts in a way that is expected of them, or even in a way that is necessarily rational. But because of the care that Balazs takes in molding his characters, it’s decidedly human, and ultimately believable, and that’s what keeps the audience engaged until the picture goes to black.
Rage is set for release on all major VOD platforms in North America and a Vimeo On Demand release in Australia on Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021.