Matthew Holmes searing vigilante thriller The Cost asks, what do we lose when we enact violence on one other? It provides no easy answers as it opens to the sound of a voice mail message left by Stephanie (Nicole Pastor) before it reveals her lifeless body laying next to a river. What happened to Stephanie will be revealed as the film ratchets up its tension in a haunting and unnerving manner.
We are then introduced to our main characters: David, Aaron, and Troy.
Troy (Kevin Dee) is a man wrapped in years of trauma, as shown by a weathered expression that hides behind a curtain of long hair. We follow Troy’s journey home after work, where he looks at a woman on a train in a sheepishly polite manner, or maybe that glance contains a malicious intention. When he visits his local bottle-o, he lights up when he sees a familiar friendly salesperson as they chat about their plans for the future. At home, we see him settle into his routine as a regular bloke wanting to spend a quiet night at home with his cat. Holmes plays his first risky card as he gives the audience an empathetic balance point to rest our initial opinion on Troy.
We then see Aaron (Damon Hunter) preparing for a weekend away with David (Jordan Fraser-Trumble), packing all manner of camping goods before sliding a rifle into his supplies. As Aaron’s family go about their usual nightly routine, it’s clear that they carry no awareness that anything dangerous is about to occur. As night falls on the suburbs, David and Aaron drive to Troy’s home, briefly discussing their plan before ambushing him. They sedate the terrified figure, bind his hands and legs, pulling a bag over his head before bundling him into their vehicle.
Over the initial half hour, Holmes and co-writer Gregory Moss ensure to give the audience time to settle in with the characters before their plan is set in motion. Questions are raised about their actions: What is their relationship to Troy? How does their violence relate to the death of Stephanie? And most importantly: what are they going to do with Troy when they get him to their destination?
We soon learn that Aaron is the widow of Stephanie, and David is her brother, leaving Troy as the convicted rapist and murderer. It’s from here that The Cost works its way towards bringing its characters together on a moral centre point that consistently sways between trying to determine what makes an action just or unjust.
As a widow and a sibling, Aaron and David see Troy’s spent prison sentence as being an inadequate one. In their eyes, the decision of the law has not delivered a verdict that equals the loss they’ve suffered. The Cost pushes its audience into an uncomfortable place where they’re forced to grapple with the question of who gets to decide when someone is redeemed. At what point is the price of the crime paid? Can anyone ever be redeemed after raping and murdering someone?
In the eyes of the law, Troy was deemed guilty and has served his time in prison. During that time, he sustained a level of abuse, information that he proffers under duress and in the midst of being tortured by Aaron and David. He’s lost contact with his family, leaving him with his only solace: a tabby cat and the overseas trip he’s planning. Within Troy’s domesticity, we’re shown a life Stephanie has been denied by his actions.
For some viewers, the balance of morality might be too difficult to endure, even though The Cost is a richer film for it. Tip too far too one side, and it becomes the same revenge tale that we’ve seen before, slide to the other side and it humanises a rapist. What Holmes manages to do is sit within the murky middle ground which allows the audience to come to their own conclusions. It’s a tonal tightrope that’s difficult to manage, but for the most part Holmes delivers it masterfully.
Part of that tonal tightrope comes in the manner that Aaron and David inflict their violent revenge on Troy. This is not a gruesome, limb-chopping torture, but rather a type of violence that leaves bruises and welts as the two men whip Troy with a thin strap. When it comes to their planned act of castration, they pull back saying “They don’t want that image stuck in my head anyway”. After all, while Troy is made to pay a price for his violent actions, it’s clear that Aaron and David know that what they’re engaging in will linger in their minds for the rest of their lives.
The Cost doesn’t have a neat conclusion, but a story like this was never going to. Some of the closing character beats feel unsatisfactory in the manner that they draw some of the men away from who we’ve grown to know them to be. This is a small complaint however given the immense tension that thrives from beat to beat.
Cable Williams cinematography pushes the audience intimately into this circle of violence. There is no escape from the traumatic events, however Holmes never makes the viewer complicit in the men’s actions, reinforcing the questioning nature of the film. The Cost is predominantly shot in a stunning maze of a forest, with the tranquillity that comes from the natural greenery forever disrupted and disturbed by the carnage that is once again being wrought upon its soil. That intimacy creates an occasionally unsettling and nauseating experience that helps make The Cost an unnerving, white-knuckle thriller that pulses with a palpable dread that will leave you shaking.
As the characters find themselves swallowed in a sea of trees, their moral compass loses its north point. What they set out to do is not what they imagined it would be. Holmes takes us to a point where we start to ask ourselves is this too much? When will they stop? before he pulls back and shows us the lead up to Troy’s rape and murder of Stephanie as a reminder as to why he is being tortured, which itself leads to another question. Does retribution and revenge create a just resolution?
We’ve seen this kind of story before, usually in the exploitation genre, but what distances The Cost from other rape-revenge films is the level of humanity that comes from the three central performances. As a triple-hander, The Cost stuns with committed and grounded performances by Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Damon Hunter, and Kevin Dee.
It’s that level of humanity that we need to recall. Being human doesn’t mean we’re always completely empathetic entities who are gentle, considerate, and kind. We can also be violent, cruel, nihilistic. Each actor is pushed into a dark and disturbing place to sit as a performer, and they equally stun with his grounded and committed they are, as if each has asked themselves the question that many of us have asked each other: what would you do if someone you love was raped and murdered?
That question in turn creates the foundational strength of The Cost with Holmes and Moss’ script presenting characters that hang on the precipice of morality. This is a film that feels timely and relevant, but never opportunistic in the manner that it explores masculinity and the fallout of a traumatic event. Again, this is not a rape-revenge film in the traditional sense, but rather a violent character study that reflects the viewers mindset more than a societal one.
After the solid bushranger flick The Legend of Ben Hall, it’s clear that Matthew Holmes is a formidable director who has a keen appreciation for creating tense experiences. The Cost is a welcome addition to the Australian thriller genre.
Director: Matthew Holmes
Cast: Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Damon Hunter, Kevin Dee
Writers: Matthew Holmes, Gregory Moss
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