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It’s time for a moratorium on characters who jump fully clothed into swimming pools and linger underwater to hide from reality. The Graduate invented this scene, Rushmore perfected it, and dozens of lesser movies have screwed it up. Dirt Music should end the trope once and for all. Halfway through this dreadful Aussie romance film, Georgie (Kelly Macdonald) jumps into a pool to avoid a confrontation with her father at her mother’s funeral. It adds nothing to the story, except to remind you of better ones, and it’s one of many instances in which the filmmakers use a cliche in place of character development.
Adapted from an award-winning novel by Tim Winton and directed by Gregor Jordan, Dirt Music suffers from a fundamental flaw common in poor page-to-screen adaptations: It fails to externalize the inner life of its characters, and we end up focusing far more on their outsides. Case in point is Georgie, who is in a relationship with Jim (David Wenham), a widowed fisherman with two children, but spends her days drinking white wine and passing out on their expensive couch. She is rescued from her self-inflicted doldrums when she catches the appropriately-named Luther Fox (Garrett Hedlund) fishing in her boyfriend’s ocean. She happens to be skinny-dipping at the time. He motors over to her. “I thought you were a body,” he says. “I am a body,” she coyly replies.
It plays like a bad romance novel. Luther has a dog and a truck and an excellent body, and he doesn’t say much. He’s not really a human being. More like a Wrangler jeans ad come to life. These two beautiful strangers jump into the sack before we even get to know them—they don’t even stop to take their clothes off—which would be fine if the film didn’t have higher aspirations. I could have gone for Unfaithful down under. Macdonald has a natural beauty here, and Hedlund, with his chiseled jaw and blonde locks constantly falling over his eyes, looks like the offspring of Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt. Few people will complain about that.
But Dirt Music is split between its tawdry beginning and its melodramatic second half, in which revelations about Luther’s backstory—he lost his brother, sister-in-law, and niece in a car accident that Georgie is unknowingly connected to—threaten to unravel their relationship. It’s not surprising, since their connection is already paper-thin. With such poor characterization and off-tempo pacing, the film is somehow both plodding and rushed at once. There’s simply no chance for the viewer to find their way into the story. As a result, we remain on the outside looking in.
To be clear, the outsides are pretty great. The people are beautiful and the Australian landscape looks wild and wondrous. Dirt Music is intended as a film about sad, brooding people who express themselves physically because words can’t convey the depth of their feelings. Instead, with little effort by the filmmakers to turn the literary into cinema, its only value is its surface. If this were a tourism ad, it could do wonders for the Australian economy. As a film, Dirt Music leaves us stuck in the mud.
Dirt Music is available Friday to stream on VOD.