I’ve begun to observe a certain categorical and identifiable representation of masculinity in contemporary Australian cinema, one inherently constituted by genre on the one hand, and imaginings of landscape on the other: Which is to say, Australian cinema has always been engaged in interrogating or perpetuating the mythos of the self-realised ‘outback bloke’ — though it required a Canadian dramatist, Ted Kotcheff, to dismantle the archetype wholesale in Wake in Fright — but a recent influx of tiny Australian pastorals of epic interiors have reclaimed the archetype for renewed audience fascination, by subjecting this human avatar to the violence of the land he professes to emblematise.
There must be something iconic, unassailable and inexpressible — “primal”, growls Thomas (a.k.a. Chris Alcott), one of two central protagonists in Kasimir Burgess’s riveting and loss-haunted début feature, Fell — about a man’s attempts to carve a channel wide enough to accommodate him in the topography of the Australian landscape, because this is a narrative of provenance which we appear collective-bound to tell. Writer/director David Michôd has probably assumed the status as the proverbial poster boy for rehabilitating this once-shunned storytelling tradition in Australia, and certainly there’s something to be said about Michôd’s conviction that the conditions of a particular landscape will compel dramatic impetus in a story about men. In many ways, however, Michôd’s The Rover is schematic or obfuscating — low-stakes, emotionally — where Kasimir Burgess’s Fell is mute but stormy with meaning.
I should clarify here, too, that I’m an unabashed advocate for Michôd’s filmmaking, and I actually regard The Rover as a minor cinematic wonder, even despite its seething alienated affect — what it denies its audience in an accessible emotive register, it exchanges for a sincere masculine fellowship which it stewards before our eyes in real time — but, if I had to call it, Burgess’s Fell is the film whose resonating impact I expect will endure with me personally, because it complicates the Australian masculine archetype by inviting us to inhabit its characters’ heads. The explicit comparison I cite is not one summoned due to an idle critical equivalence; Fell is the perfect counterpoint to Michôd’s The Rover, because Burgess’s film is almost a thematic inversion of the latter. The Rover is a film in which vengeance and retribution are the only recourses or residual motives left for a man when he is deprived of the last physical reminder of his human capacity for love — in the case of Guy Pearce’s character Eric, this is his dog. Burgess’s film is one in which the object of a man’s love is — in the context of Fell, this is the daughter of the film’s wan, funereal everyman, Thomas (portrayed with a brooding and wounded intensity by Matt Nable) — first cruelly dispossessed him, but which he discovers is restored to him in significant and terrestrial ways through those responsible for orchestrating the loss. Fell is therefore less concerned with the expression of masculine violence after bearing witness to the demise of the recipient of one’s love. Instead, Fell is more invested in the moral fallout of a violence that cannibalises its agent from the inside: How can you honour a bereaved love, if you churn with a hate which you crave to apply in its place?
In this way, Fell manifests itself as a morality play, where The Rover externalises the psychological volatility of its central protagonist by adhering to the conventions of a revenge exploitation thriller; Kasimir Burgess, and his screenwriter, Natasha Pincus, mine their drama from what is not enacted, and the behavioural and somatic influences which suppressed desire wages on the mind of its mediator. In the case of Fell, we are presented with a narrative conceit of immediate power: Thomas’s daughter is taken from him while they are engaged together in a bush trek in the forested Southern Victorian alps, and the party responsible for this sorrowful act — Luke, a charismatic and combustible timber logger and high climber played by Daniel Henshall, he whom Roger Ebert once referred to as “astonishingly good” — is sentenced to five years imprisonment. In the throes of an inalienable grief, Thomas assumes a new identity as one ‘Chris Alcott’, moves to the remote logging community that Luke regards as home, and stakes out an agenda of quiet retribution by learning the way of a contract forester, becoming a ‘feller’, the individual responsible for downing a hardwood tree for timber by hand with an axe. When you see Thomas wield that blade, his teeth grit and his eyes raging, it is the same sensation you experience when you first watch Luke scale a montane ash tree: in the context that Fell is a pastoral epic, these people each possess their own discrete superpower.
From the moment Luke is released after serving his sentence, the film characterises itself as a collision course between combatants, thrusting Thomas and Luke into an ever-accelerating proximity with one another, harvesting a tension and an undercurrent of dread which is only ever leavened by small, subdued moments of kinship, between man and man, between man and daughter, and between man and nature, amongst the stranglehold of bracken and the mountain ash: Fell is a film in which solastalgia is the great equalising principle. There is a yearning for a home that is irrecoverable in both Thomas and Luke; they can only discern a trembling echo of the life they once knew when in the company of each other.
There is a scene of remarkable sensitivity which arrives somewhere in the second act. Luke places his hand to the thorax of an old-growth eucalyptus, towering far above him, and explains that even when something of a singular sublimity dies, it remains. “In what?” Thomas asks, a masterful line reading from Matt Nable which should telegraph to any audience member the interior contortions his character is having to suppress in order to dignify this claim from the mouth of his secret adversary. Luke turns with a guileless smile, and gazes at Thomas. “In us,” he tells us. And then we realise that this is a lesson in atonement; if you take something away from another man, you inherit it, and forgiveness comes with learning to husband that pain, let it snarl its roots in you, because this is the only way it will ever leave. One day it will open its canopy, somewhere in the silent mud of your chest, and then you might exhale so that it can fruit somewhere else. When it’s gone, you will miss that pain. Yet you will feel better for having life breathed back into you.