With its simplistic psychological motivations and convenient (if bloody) resolution, Romper Stomper is essentially another troubled-teen social-problem film. It’s dragged roughly out of the realm of the predictable, though, by Geoffrey Wright’s nervy direction and his equally brash choice of protagonists: racist skinheads intent on kicking over Melbourne’s melting pot.
A first-time feature director who also wrote the script, Wright makes his kinetic intentions clear in the brisk, jumpy opening scene. The camera takes the point of view of a skateboarder as he swoops into an underpass, there to confront an ominous vision: a group of young men in too-short jeans and too-big boots. The skateboarder is of Vietnamese origin, and the men he sees see him as an impurity in the Australian blood bank. “This is not your country,” says the leader of the gang, preparing to beat up the Vietnamese boy and his friends. In the queasy moment before the assault begins, Wright flashes the names of the skins on the screen: Hando (Proof‘s Russell Crowe), Davey (Daniel Pollock), and so on. These are the people with whom you’ll be spending the next 90 minutes, and Wright wants you to have no illusions about them.
Rated NC-17 by the MPAA, which just can’t abide brutality depicted by foreign directors, Stomper doesn’t display one-tenth the blood, explosives, and spent casings flaunted by a typical Hollywood R-rated action epic. Its violence is unglamorous, though, and not in the cause of truth, justice, and the Australian way. “My characters are evil,” explains Wright. They’re not misunderstood youth; they’re misunderstanding youth, and that misunderstanding is explosive and potentially deadly.
The film’s envoy to the skinhead world is Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), a young woman with plenty of problems of her own. An epileptic and a refugee from bad relationships (including a particularly sticky one with her lecherous father), Gabe meets Hando in a bar and follows him back to his room at the skinheads’ informal dormitory, where the new couple alternates jump-cut sex with readings from Mein Kampf. Perhaps commended by her blond hair, Gabe becomes one of the few skin women, although she doesn’t follow the early-Siouxsie-and-the-Banshees dress code the others do. When money becomes a problem, she suggests a promising target for a robbery—her father’s house—and after Hando tires of her she takes up with Davey, Hando’s loyal but less obsessive lieutenant. Ultimately, Gabe’s presence tears the two friends apart, and the film’s final shot is of a world askew.
In outline, this is conventional stuff, but Wright’s bold storytelling style invigorates it. Shot with fluid but fidgety handheld camera and employing vertiginous angles, Stomper frequently proceeds at a gallop. Its centerpiece is a lengthy action sequence that begins when the skins hear that “gooks” are at their favorite bar; the skins attack, only to face a massive counteroffensive; the skins are chased back to their refuge, and then forced to abandon even that. These visceral, careening scenes implicate the audience in the exhilaration of violence and toy with its sympathies by suddenly transforming the skins into underdogs. As the skins make their narrow escape, the Vietnamese burn the Nazi memorabilia that’s left behind, a bizarre image of triumph over an ideology seemingly irrelevant to both Australia and Vietnam.
Though Hando lectures Gabe on “the ongoing struggle of the white race,” Wright doesn’t attempt to explain why he or his colleagues became skins, buying into a small but far-flung movement that mingles free-floating youthful dissatisfaction with half-digested, “scientific” racist blather. The film is less analysis than thrill-ride, a galvanizing (if clear-eyed) swoop through one of the revolt-into-style subcultures Britain has exported to the world. Given this, it’s possible to understand why Romper Stomper has proved too ambiguous for some viewers. Wright certainly doesn’t glorify skinhead violence, but sometimes he does seem to have been seduced by the vigor of his own camera angles.
The family is murder. At least that’s the not especially hidden agenda of director Joseph Ruben’s films, where the only mystery is whether the homicidal maniac is your father (The Stepfather), your husband (Sleeping With the Enemy), or, now, your cousin.
When he arrives from the wide-open desert Southwest to spend two weeks with his aunt, uncle, and their two children in tight, angular Maine, Mark (Avalon angel-face Elijah Wood) has just experienced the death of his mother, glimpsed in an early scene promising to “always be with you.” The kid’s both motherless and (temporarily) fatherless, as Dad has headed to Tokyo to consummate a very important deal, one whose success will mean he’ll never have to leave Mark home-alone again. (Finances intrude on these upscale people just long enough to get Dad out of the country.) Mark feels an immediate bond with his aunt, Susan (Wendy Crewson), who just may be the fulfillment of Mom’s dying vow, and the family includes a cousin his own age, Henry.
First glimpsed from the rear, his earlobe turned a satanic red by the winter cold, Henry is Macaulay Culkin, who a generation of American filmgoers supposedly finds adorable. “If he were playing the good kid, I wouldn’t have been nearly as interested,” Ruben says. There’s nothing that Henry does on-screen in The Good Son that rivals the sadism of the Home Alone flicks, though. Henry’s younger brother did die under mysterious circumstances, and the boy does kill a dog while demonstrating to Mark his homemade bolt-thrower. His murderous intentions toward his little sister, Connie (played by Culkin’s own sibling, Quinn), and his mother, however—couldn’t those just be the overactive imaginings of a cousin unhinged by grief?
Well, no. That would be the psychological approach, and scripter Ian McEwan—who also wrote the novel that Paul Schrader and Harold Pinter turned into the hysterical sex-and-death-in-Venice romp, The Comfort of Strangers—has no truck here with psychology. The film’s characters even include a family therapist, whose only function is to reject the wisdom provided her by Mark before he even knows the extent of Henry’s malevolent potential. “I don’t believe in evil,” smiles the therapist. “You should,” replies Mark.
OK, so Henry is evil, and Mark (and the audience) soon knows it. That doesn’t give Son much to do with its 90 (but seems longer) minutes except to catalog the damage the pre-pubescent devil can work before Susan is finally forced to make the fateful choice between her demonic son and her angelic nephew. Ruben spends a lot of time contemplating dizzying heights—the cliffs near the family home, a deep dark well that hides the remains of Henry’s crimes, and an absurdly high treehouse all threaten danger—but he doesn’t maintain the film’s sense of balance particularly well. With its dramatic aerial shots and Maine (actually Massachusetts and Lake Superior) locations and Elmer Bernstein’s score blaring fanfares that sound like something out of Oklahoma!, The Good Son strains for grandeur. Ruben, though, is still making cheap little slasher movies, and they’re not getting any more convincing as the budgets climb the heights.