Down Under opens with a text message that sparked the fire that was the Cronulla riots. News footage plays out the brutal physical assault on people of all nationalities, wrapping up with a line from a news report ‘if you are of Lebanese decent and go to Cronulla beach tomorrow, you will be a dead man’. The scene is set for one of the finest dark comedies Australia has ever seen.
Picking up the day after the riots, Down Under shows the story of two groups trawling through the night, seeking revenge and justice. Leading the white racist pack is supreme moron Jason (Damon Herriman), guiding his cronies to reclaim their area and bash as many ‘Lebo scum’ as possible. On the Muslim side, there is Nick (Rahel Romahn) and Hassim (Lincoln Younes) who are out searching for Hassim’s brother Faruq who has not been seen since the riots took place. Taking place over one night, Down Under introduces us to the world of Sydney with all its drug running fools and Australian-flag wearing bogans, while also showing the multicultural side of Australia.
Writer/Director Abe Forsythe has returned to cinema thirteen years after creating the hilarious Ned (if there was ever a film in need of a revival and cultural reassessment, it’s this one). After spending years acting in Australian TV, which portrayed somewhat sanitised versions of real life in well received shows like Always Greener (although do check out Laid on Netflix), Forsythe brings a scathing assessment of Australia as it was in 2005. What’s most upsetting is the fact that through all the laughter this film delivers, there is still a damning relevance to what is being displayed. If anything, with the rise of far right groups like Reclaim Australia, Down Under is even more timely and accurate.
Yet, most surprisingly, this tale of racism gone awry is one of the most hilarious and biting films cinema has seen in a while. I don’t just mean Australian cinema, but also cinema as a whole. Through trying times, comedy can be the perfect way to critique the actions of the world. Charlie Chaplin did it superbly with his biting satire of Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator. Abe Forsythe manages to do the same here with purveyors of racism.
What Forsythe understands is that to shine a critical eye on the actions of a group of people, and to reinforce the severity of their actions, you must allow the audience to empathise with them. It’s a fine line to tread – creating such despicable characters who do and say some truly heinous things, yet giving them traits that make them relatable or sympathetic in some manner – but it is one that Forsythe manages to navigate superbly. At once, Forsythe celebrates the idiocy of Jason and his gang of fools, always maintaining a satirical look at their lives.
What further impresses about Down Under is that unlike the controversial Romper Stomper, it never presents itself as a film that condones the actions of its characters on either side of the argument. While Romper Stomper was a takedown of racism, it unfortunately has the ability to be taken as if it is a celebration of the actions of its core character, Hando. By detailing both the white group and the Muslim group equally, there is no possibility to condone either groups actions. Both equally enact terrible deeds, it’s simply the situation that these deeds occur that provide the context to properly judge them.
The general concept of racism is giving a thorough shellacking through the eyes of characters like stoner Shit-Stick (Alexander England) and his Down Syndrome cousin Evan (Chris Bunton) who are enlisted to drive Jason and his bandaged Ned Kelly loving pal Ditch (Justin Rosniak) around all night. Evan is a superb character as he is clearly more sensitive to the situation and more intelligent than Ditch or Jason are. One poignant scene has Evan asking Shit-Stick about whether after the actions of evening he will still be able to hang out with his Maltese friend at school. Shit-Stick’s response is, of course, don’t let people make up your mind for you, you hang out with the people you want to hang out with.
On the flipside of this group is Hassim, a man who simply wants to study and do well in his exams. Reluctantly he is dragged into the situation of trawling the streets for his brother Faruq – if, along the way, they happen to find some white guys to beat up, then great. Hassim does not want to antagonise the situation further, he simply wants to find his brother and return home – he doesn’t want to lean into the reactions that society has grown to expect from his people.
If all this sounds like a dark night at the cinema, well, I assure you it is not. All this critical assessment of racism and Australian culture is gathered under an array of glorious dick jokes and ‘your mum’ jokes. To some, the dick joke is the lowest form of comedy, simply relying on scatological humour that has been run into the ground by many Judd Apatow knock off films that don’t understand the fine art of a good dick joke – here, Abe Forsythe has created the pinnacle of the Australian dick joke. It is a gag that works every time in the film, helping punch home that powerful satire.
On top of this, the ability for the average Australian to throw any and every swear word into any and every sentence is superbly used here. For many, the c-word is the most offensive slur, here it is used in so many endearing ways that it almost becomes a sign of affection. The fact we never learn what Shit-Stick’s name is also a testament to how well swearing is implemented here and how ingrained swearing is to Australian culture.
If there’s one thing to take away from Down Under is the level of hypocrisy that exists within cultures around the world. The white thugs want to go out and beat up anybody who is not white, yet they stop off to get a bunch of kebabs for Jason’s pregnant girlfriend. The acceptance of certain aspects of different cultures yet at the same time, the rejection of the people who bring their culture to Australia, is of course the main argument that these racists have against the integration of immigrants – ‘they come here and don’t accept the Australian way’.
If you had said to me at the beginning of the year that one of the funniest films of the year would be a film about the Cronulla riots, well I would have chased you out of the room with a baseball bat. But, low and behold, with its superb use of 2005 pop music and sucker punch coda, Down Under is the funniest Australian film of 2016. Slap on Four Lions before heading to the cinema to see this to get you ready for the dark hilarity.
Director: Abe Forsythe
Cast: Damon Herriman, Lincoln Younes, Rahel Romahn, Alexander England
Writer: Abe Forsythe