Australian writer-director Scott Roberts is apparently a movie buff. The plot of his feature debut shows a wide range of influences, from the 1960 British comedy “Two-Way Stretch” (in which Peter Sellers played a convict who escaped briefly, pulled a big heist and returned to jail with a perfect alibi) to Kubrick’s 1956 “The Killing” (about an elaborate racing-track robbery); the tone, however, is modeled on neither of these, being more a Down-Under version of the hard-boiled pulp sensibility that once flourished in film noir and has now been revived in post-Tarantino gangster flicks, including Guy Ritchie’s high-octane British imitations. “The Hard Word” is a pretty apt title for the result: it’s basically meaningless but sounds tough. The movie could be described in similar terms.
Guy Pearce, bearded and sullen, stars as Dale Twentyman, the eldest of three brothers incarcerated in an Aussie prison; his younger siblings are good-natured butcher Mal (Damien Richardson) and hot-tempered but charismatic Shane (Joel Edgerton). By some device that’s never adequately explained, their shady lawyer Frank Malone (Robert Taylor) arranges for them to be occasionally freed to pull heists, most recently an armored-car robbery that’s supposed to be the last before their imminent release. But the slimy Malone and his corrupt cop partners manipulate evidence to force the guys into undertaking an even bigger job after he springs them–lifting the loot from an assemblage of bookies gathered for Australia’s biggest horse race, the Melbourne Cup. Of course, Malone isn’t to be trusted–especially since during Dale’s incarceration he’s been keeping house with the jailed man’s sultry, money-hungry wife Carol (Rachel Griffiths). Certainly the two other fellows the lawyer’s recruited for the team–bookish Paul (Kim Gyngell) and manic Tarzan (Dorian Nkono)–don’t inspire confidence. And lurking in the background are the two nasty, corrupt cops (Vincent Colosimo and Paul Sonkkila) Malone’s been using in his schemes all along.
What’s best about “The Hard Word” is the sense of camaraderie Roberts builds among the Twentyman brothers; the fraternal bond feels genuine. Individually, however, the siblings make different impressions: Pearce scowls his way throughout most of the film, loosening up only near the close, while both Richardson and Edgerton create more engaging characters. That results partly from the fact that as written Mal and Shane are more rounded, unpredictable fellows (Dale is rather unvaryingly stern and unrelenting), but also from the unusual romantic attachments they enjoy, very different from that of their older brother. Dale, for better or worse, is stuck with his decidedly unreliable wife Carol, who’s presented as a tease and a gold-digger, and most of his feelings are channeled into jealousy–understandable, perhaps, but rather dull. (Griffiths, meanwhile, plays her part not only in a blonde wig but in perpetual italics–and Taylor is little more than conventionally smarmy as the shyster lawyer.) Shane, on the other hand, enjoys an amusing brief flirtation with a prison psychologist (Rhondda Findleton), and Mal has an even more charming near-dalliance with a loopy racetrack patron (Kate Atkinson) whom the boys induce to transport them away from the heist in her new van. In fact, one winds up wishing the two ladies had more prominent roles than they do.
Still, despite the problems, especially in the Dale-Carol-Malone triangle, the more intimate aspects of the tale come across reasonably well. It’s the broader canvas that seems full of holes. It’s never explained how Malone arranges for the brothers to be released from jail long enough to perform their heists–is the warden involved, or not? The Melbourne job is supposed to be very carefully planned, moreover, but it seems an impromptu mess–and one element of it, involving the dyslexia of one participant, is almost cavalierly (and implausibly) thrown away. A plot twist involving the fate of the loot is at best obscure, at worst impossible. And the final turn, with a rather unsavory joke, is utterly arbitrary. (Does anyone out there remember “Motel Hell,” a 1980 horror comedy about a sausage-maker who used special ingredients? Roberts apparently does.)
“The Hard Word” has its moments, and it certainly isn’t as irritating as Ritchie’s gangster flicks. But it never manages to be as clever–or as amusing–as Roberts apparently thinks it is.