Every so often you come across a film that fits your sensibilities so closely that you suspect it’s somehow fallen through a crack in reality from a neighbouring universe in which you yourself are a filmmaker. That’s demonstrably not the case with Below, the first feature film from WA director Maziar Lahooti; I’ve seen him, and he’s definitely not me. Neither is Ian Wilding; he’s a screenwriter who adapted his own play, which was first produced in 2000, for the screen. Their film, though? Ticks a lot of boxes, my friends, a lot of boxes.
Set in the near future/adjacent now (there are notes of Mad Max’s “a few years from now” and Max Headroom’s “20 minutes into the future”), Below mostly takes place in a refugee detention centre located in what’s termed a “Special Business Zone” – an area of mainland Australia that’s been declared extra-territorial. There, privately contracted operators like the film’s Newhaven Border Solutions, can warehouse refugees under inhumane conditions, free from the strictures of Crown law. And there is where amiable con man Dougie (Ryan Corr from every bloody thing) finds himself – not as an inmate, but as a guard.
He’d rather be anywhere else. A live-by-the-minute grifter, Dougie is into some heavy types for a considerable whack of cash after his last scheme went south, and is working at the detention facility thanks to the dubious good graces of his mother’s boyfriend, Terry (Anthony LaPaglia with a roaming but mainly Scottish accent), who wants to put money in Dougie’s pocket rather than see him leech off his mum again. It’s a tough gig – a self-immolation early in the film clues us into that with little room for doubt. Plus, there’s the cage fights that the guards force the inmates to participate in, which function as both entertainment and tool of control. Dougie, eager AF to get the hell out of this place, hits upon the bright idea of running a pay-per-view feed of the fights via the Dark Web – and off we go.
Below, which is saddled with a spectacularly unevocative title, is a stripped-back, pitch-black sci-fi farce that relies on implication and oblique, telling details to paint its picture of a grim, authoritarian world not too many degrees from our own. It’s a world where omnipresent posters warn of the murky threat of “digital terrorism”, detention centre staff meetings take place in the presence of a remote drone from head office, and information technology is just a degree or two beyond what we have now.
The rest of the set dressing largely reflects the world as it is now, which is both smart – the future arrives incrementally after all – and cheap – Below clearly stretches every dollar available to it, and choosing a more grounded, borderline banal visual palette allows Lahooti and his team to put their money where its needed most.
“Borderline banal” certainly does not describe Lahooti’s shooting style, though. Director of Photography Michael McDermott (Hounds of Love, The Naked Wanderer) captures the action with a restless, probing camera, pushing into the action and emotion at key points, then briefly angling in on tiny, evocative details – a medication label here, a cigarette pack there – with the jittery distractibility of a junkie, an effect helped by editor Ken Sallows’ (Chopper, Rikky & Pete) often abrupt, idiosyncratic cutting.
It’s an approach that only elevates – you might say exacerbates – Corr’s manic, gurning turn as our Teflon-skinned chancer protagonist, an amoral charmer high on the smell of his own bullshit who believes that he’s only ever one more scheme away from the high life and takes pains to insulate himself from the human cost of his scams, lest such ethical questions pull the pin on the permanent party in his head. Stuck in the middle of nowhere riding shotgun on a prison full of refugees, however, he’s unable to do so, and it is absolutely captivating to see Corr’s character arc towards morality and humanity in defiance of his worst impulses and habits – indeed, to put those negative traits in service to others. Corr is one of our most gifted screen actors right now and seems to have a genuine desire to use his profile to help boost interesting, low budget material. We’ve seen other actors turn up for stuff at this level for a two week holiday and a paycheque, but not this guy – he’s the palpitating, horribly compromised heart of the whole affair, and if there’s a moment where he’s giving less than 110%, I must have blinked.
Which is not to diminish LaPaglia’s turn as the comically stern and stolid Terry, who believes that he is Orwell’s rough man standing ready at the border of civilisation, dispensing necessary brutality to maintain order. The sparks struck between LaPaglia and Corr light up the entire film, and while their often savage bickering is frequently hilarious, its blackly so, underlining Below’s political concerns.
Which are not so much subtext as simply text. This is a low budget speculative fiction piece about an authoritarian state brutalising refugees, the privileged and avaricious entrepreneurs who see the situation not as an atrocity but an opportunity, and the way ordinary humanity is simply ground down by the wheels of bureaucracy, political expediency, and good old-fashioned greed – in this current awful age, that’s hardly allegorical. And it’s a comedy, more or less; Lahooti never tells you when to laugh, but this kind of midnight-in-a-coalmine satire is recognisable to those of raised on a diet of 2000 A.D. and Paul Verhoeven films.
I genuinely and unreservedly love Below. We’re pretty lucky when it comes to filmmaking talent in this country, and we get two or three feature debuts a year that startle with their sheer technical acumen and brio. Having said that, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a filmmaker come along with such a clear and well-defined voice: angry, political, bleakly funny, unabashedly humanistic, and bold. I can’t say for sure if there’s an audience for what Maziar Lahooti’s saying but, goddammit, I’m listening.
Director: Maziar Lahooti
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Ryan Corr, Morgana O’Reilly
Writer: Ian Wilding, (concept by Veronica Gleeson)