It is night and a group of teenage boys are standing in front of a house. One has a bottle with some liquid in it; he stuffs a piece of material into the neck. Then he lights it and holds it, as if having second thoughts. Another boy steps forward, takes the petrol bomb and flings it at the house, which immediately becomes a bonfire. The bomber stands there with an oddly dead look in his eye, while another in the group can be heard to mutter, ‘Mad bastard’. So starts the film directed by Brendan Fletcher called, not surprisingly, Mad Bastards. And what an excellent trip it turns out to be.
The film is set and filmed for the most part in the Kimberleys. It follows the personal journeys of the young fire bomber, Bullet (played by a fourteen-year-old boy from the region, Lucas Yeeda), his father, TJ (Dean Daley-Jones), and his grandfather, Texas (Greg Tait). Texas is the local policeman, who sends Bullet to a bush camp with other young Indigenous offenders for two weeks, rather than to a juvenile detention centre. At the same time as Bullet is throwing that incendiary bottle, his estranged father is reaching rock bottom in Perth, visiting his brother in jail then being stopped by his mother from seeing his nephew, and having to run because of a drunken and violent incident played out around a pool table.
Like the much lighter in tone Bran Nue Day, this film is partly a road trip from Perth to the Kimberleys. TJ hitchhikes north, and on the road meets various characters, in particular Uncle Black, a wise elder with a wry smile. The first half of the film swings between Bullet’s bush camp experience and TJ’s road trip. A close-up of the young boy’s face cuts to a close-up of his father’s: this is his grim future if something doesn’t happen to break the chain. Bullet finally confesses to old Johnnie, who runs the program for young offenders, that he is angry at his mother, who has a drinking problem; TJ describes to Uncle Black his terror of the little man with the axe who resides inside of him and whom he can’t seem to control, especially when he drinks. He wants to do something about it, but he doesn’t know what.
This is a film about masculinity, a particular type of masculinity enveloped by anger, fuelled by injustice and alcohol, and ending in violence. Each of the male characters is trying to work it out, trying to circumvent a terrible ending, sometimes successfully (in the case of Texas), but mostly not (in the case of TJ). It is a film about Indigenous men working out what sort of masculinity serves them best. Texas starts a men’s group in his town because he desperately wants to change the trajectory of history. These are wonderful scenes, mostly mute, because nobody wants to be the first person
to speak. But the men keep coming back, so there is real hope for them. TJ wants to connect with his son, but he is not sure how. He knows he has to do something differently because he does not want to repeat the experience of his brother, who ended up in gaol, regretting that he made such a mess as a father.
The tropes of masculinity, alcohol and violence are not unique to Indigenous Australians, but the backgrounds to them are. While there is no talk about invasions and their consequences, Mad Bastards is rooted in the culture of these men’s relationship to the land. It is beautifully shot in the Kimberley region and its varied landscapes, from the tropical density of Broome to the wide, semi-arid lands around Wyndham (called Five Rivers in the film). There are huge and majestic escarpments, baking salt flats shimmering in the distance and billabongs with abundant fish and freshwater crocodiles. Described this way, the film sounds like a travelogue from the Leyland brothers, but it is actually about internal journeys, though the characters’ internal journals cannot be separated from the land on which they walk. At one point, Uncle Black takes TJ to a waterhole and talks about his country. TJ, in turn, talks about his country in Perth, now a part of a freeway, and the bridge over the Swan River; the best part of the river is dominated by a brewery. The impact of colonial Australia is never far away, but the answer to Indigenous men’s problems lie with the men themselves and what they are willing to do to take responsibility.
There is barely a white face in the whole film. The only white person with a speaking part is TJ’s acquaintance from gaol, who precipitates a violent beating by his questioning of TJ’s manhood.
Women are also generally absent. The only woman who features prominently is Bullet’s mother, Nella. We first see her when Bullet is locked up after the fire: she comes into the police lock-up drunk and swearing. In another scene she is cleaning blood off the walls of her house, the morning after a party that has turned violent. However, before TJ shows up she has already understood the damage she is doing to her son and has sworn off alcohol. Texas’ wife has only one substantial line, but what a beauty. She and Texas are sitting down at the kitchen table, discussing what he needs to set up the men’s group. She takes her reading glasses off and tells him that he just needs some ‘structural funding’. This woman knew the community development lingo and could use it to good effect.
With the exception of Ngaire Pigram, who plays Nella, no one in the film had previous acting experience, but there’s no sense of watching an amateur effort. Dean Daley-Jones has a brooding menace―you can’t help thinking that the little man with the axe really is there, waiting for the chance to get out and wreak havoc. Young Lucas Yeeda is a natural in front of the camera, and Greg Tait convinces as the policeman and grandfather. Uncle Black is a delightful presence.
The other presence in the film is the soundtrack, which underscores the journey throughout. The music is provided by the Pigram brothers, some of whom appear in the film and helped make it; together they create an engaging musical genre with guitars, ukuleles and mandolins. The only white face of any importance is musician Alex Lloyd, who appears at a party playing some fantastic blues. Brendan Fletcher has previously made music videos for the Pigram Brothers, among others, and he has a feel for when to use music to emphasise the emotion in a scene, like when TJ gets drunk in a car with the men who have picked him up, while at other times the music
becomes just part of the life of the people we are watching. The soundtrack has taken on a life of its own―there is a Pigram Brothers tour with Alex Lloyd in the offing.
I did miss the women’s stories though. The hegemonic masculinity portrayed is intelligently critiqued, but it stands alone, as if not part of a social world with women. There is another film to be made here. This was something I put to Brendan Fletcher in interview, and he agreed that this could well be a topic for a film in the future. Interestingly, I did not miss non-Indigenous Australians, but I did miss the women. But this is for another day. Little could dampen my enthusiasm for this film; it works on so many different levels, from the story told to the music made.
By Grazyna Zajdow
Grazyna Zajdow is an Arena Magazine editor.