The Hard Word Review
According to star Guy Pearce, The Hard Word is slang for forcing someone to do something they don’t want to, an interesting title for a film with the underlying message that crime pays. But one of the successes of this decidedly Australian heist movie is that you continually root for its thieving protagonists, due in large part to some great performances and quirky turns of plot that defy a standard Hollywood sense of closure. Occasionally they defy audience patience too, but on the whole this is an enjoyable caper from first-time director Scott Roberts.
Imprisoned for armed robbery, our first sight of Dale Twentyman (Pearce) is smiling sardonically as he watches a basketball game between fellow inmates deteriorate into violence. Even with the beard, greased locks and extended overbite worn here, Pearce and his intense eyes have always implied the dark spark of a calculating intelligence, and has generally seen him cast accordingly: lawyer, time-travelling scientist, careerist cop – even as the amnesiac Leonard Shelby in Memento, his powers of logic greatly exceeded those of the average bleached blond. And so it is here, pacing the prison library, but enjoying a sheep shagging crack at the warden’s expense, demonstrating the self-deprecating humour he’s going to require as the film progresses.
The smartest and oldest, Dale is incarcerated with his brothers: chubby, good-natured Mal (Damien Richardson) and bad-tempered Shane (Joel Edgerton), a temperamental set of tattooed muscles who is, nevertheless, not as dumb as he seems. They have an arrangement with the corrupt governor, two bent cops and their crooked lawyer Frank (Robert Taylor), that somehow manages to see them being continually released to pull yet another armed robbery, something they do effortlessly and without endangering their credo that no-one gets hurt. Returning to prison for another short stretch however, the brothers are becoming increasingly suspicious of Frank, not least Dale who rightly suspects something between the self-serving lawyer and his wife Carol (Rachel Griffiths).
Grudgingly though, they accept Frank’s proposal to head to Melbourne races to pull that old cliché: one last big job. Unfortunately, Frank has bought a couple of other crooks along as well, and when one, the psychotic Tarzan (Dorian Nkono) goes berserk, it gets horribly bloody and they narrowly escape with the money and their lives. The scene is now set for a series of double-crosses where the wily Carol emerges as the sharpest operator of them all.
Though the film ends on an anti-climax, this somehow seems appropriate. The Hard Word has no small amount of fun sending up audience preconceptions of the heist and prison movie genres, and often simply takes the piss. When it looks like the prison counsellor is developing a deep relationship with the oedipally troubled Shane, he ends up having his breast and eating it. Yet lumpish Mal’s fairytale romance is left stranded on the roadside by the self-centred pragmatism of robbers on the run. And the humour can be filthy: Carol’s visit of Dale in prison is a smear on a similar scene in Midnight Express.
Giving their characters a sort of compromised Bonnie and Clyde-style mistrust, the sassy Griffiths and Pearce are excellent, and the latter forms a compelling ensemble with Richardson and Edgerton as brothers-in-armed robbery. Unfortunately, this central quartet is so well realized that they almost seem too big for the film, whose actual robbery sequences don’t do the enjoyable Twentyman’s justice. Somewhat unsatisfactorily, you leave with the sense of having watched merely a quite good film, but one in which you’re desperate for the unlikely sequel.
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