Face to Face (Australia, 2011)
Directed by: Michael Rymer
Written by: Michael Rymer, based on the play by David Williamson
Starring: Luke Ford, Vince Colosimo, Sigrid Thornton, Matthew Newton, Robert Rabiah, Ra Chapman
It’s easy to describe in a sentence the plot of Michael Rymer’s new film Face to Face: Wayne (Luke Ford) physically lashes out at his boss Greg (Vince Colosimo) after being fired, and in order to avoid jail attends a conflict resolution session chaired by Jack (Matthew Newton) and joined by friends, family and workmates, all of whom have played some part in Wayne’s transgression. That’s it. A single-room psychiatric talk-fest with occasional flashbacks to give context.
What’s not quite so easy is to adequately explain how such a simple set-up makes for the best Australian film of 2011, but it’s all in the execution.
Face to Face is the perfect example of how a movie can benefit from having a miniscule budget. Shot on digital SLR cameras, the lack of cinematic lenses available for such devices keeps the tricky camera movement and expensive location shooting to an absolute minimum, confining most of the action to the hall in which the nine principals find themselves. It’s the kind of pure acting environment that actors must cherish: 80% dialogue, the success of the film lives and dies by its performances, and without exception they are magnificent. Colosimo and Ford especially should expect to hear their names read out at the upcoming AACTA Awards, playing their characters with disarming warmth and tenderness behind abrasive facades.
(It’s a nice change to see Luke Ford perform material not written to sound like a Neighbours episode, as he did in Red Dog.)
The robustly-constructed story reveals only the most superficial facts of Wayne’s crime to start with, and invites the audience to make assumptions about each character: there’s the dim, violent Wayne; the success-obsessed, self-made businessman Greg; his wine-drinking trophy wife Claire (Sigrid Thornton); Wayne’s blokey-bloke bully of a workmate Hakim (Robert Rabiah); Greg’s superficial, gold-digging personal assistant Julia (Laura Gordon); and the shy, silent company accountant Therese (Ra Chapman).
As each of these characters is allowed to express their side of the story, and is forced to break down the walls of self-preservation they’ve built around themselves, we get a glimpse at the internal struggles which define their lives but which are entirely invisible to everyone else, even those who work alongside them every day. By the end of the film our assumptions about them are not just destroyed, but completely shattered, and we learn that what culminated in Wayne’s outburst actually had far more to do with the others in the room than just Wayne himself.
Based on a play by David Williamson, itself based on notes from real-life conflict resolution sessions, comparisons to single-room dramas like 12 Angry Men and Richard Linklater’s underrated Tape are not entirely unwarranted. Face to Face masterfully subverts the audience’s assumptions, presenting a constricted view of the story which slowly gets undermined and eventually upturned as more of the complex web of cause-and-effect is revealed.
Larger issues like workplace dynamics, domestic abuse and race relations are dissected through the prism of the film’s narrowly-focused personal drama, but only indirectly. We experience these issues verbally, in a personal fashion through those affected by it, in a rare case where the conventional wisdom of “show, don’t tell” doesn’t apply. The whole film tells, and only shows after the telling has been done, lending the film an emotional punch it otherwise could never have achieved.