Dir/scr: Rolf de Heer. Australia. 2011. 102mins


The films of Australian writer/director/producer Rolf de Heer are never predictable. He calls his latest low-budget feature a ‘suburban western’: it is, in fact, a middle-class comedy that grows increasingly dark, that flirts with farce and horror without losing its essential moral goodness. Thoughtful and playful, hard to classify, it’s unlikely to break free of the four-screen micro-release that starts in Australia and New Zealand on July 12.

Sometimes tense, sometimes silly, The King is Dead! is impossible to view without imagining yourself stuck in a similar predicament.

The auteur’s previous work — which includes Bad Boy Bubby (1993), The Tracker (2002) and the multi-award winning Ten Canoes (2006) — holds few foretastes of this one, though he is working with his usual expert team of cinematographer (Ian Jones), editor (Tania Nehme), designer (Beverley Freeman) and composer (Graham Tardif).

In a comfortable suburban street, Number 37 is up for sale, the signboard outside advertising a ‘peaceful neighbourhood’. School teacher Max (Dan Wyllie) and accountant Therese (Bojana Novakovic) are impressed by the six-and-a-half minute walk to the nearest bus stop, but they somehow overlook the cartoon shambles that is Number 35, the house next door. Surly, battered, misogynistic King (Gary Waddell) lives there, joined every night by the loudest imaginable collection of drug dealers, gangsters, rappers and screaming women. Think ‘neighbours from hell’ and double it.

Decent and well mannered to a fault, Max and Therese counter with earplugs and polite requests, move on to summoning the inept local police, and edge slowly towards “doing something” about what Therese starts to call “the dumb jerks next door”. But de Heer steers away from the broad farce inherent in his story and the exclamation mark in his title: the payoff gets painful and nasty.

There are enjoyable performances from the bemused Scrabble-playing central pair, and some fearful madness from Luke Ford, Anthony Hayes and Lani Johntupu as unpredictable next-door visitors. Sometimes tense, sometimes silly, The King is Dead! is impossible to view without imagining yourself stuck in a similar predicament. But a wilder, swifter, more conventional approach might well have substantially increased the size of the release.

Production company: Vertigo Productions

Aust/NZ distribution: Pinnacle Films

International sales: Fandango Portobello, www.portobellopictures.com/fandango-portobello

Producers: Rolf de Heer, Nils Erik Nielsen

Cinematography: Ian Jones

Editor: Tania Nehme

Production designer: Beverley Freeman

Music: Graham Tardif

Website: www.pinnaclefilms.com.au

Main cast: Dan Wyllie, Bojana Novakovic, Gary Waddell, Luke Ford, Anthony Hayes, Lani Johntupu