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OZ CINEMA
Your guide to Australian film.
By Joshua Smith

Film Review: Kiss or Kill (1997)

Author: Joshua Smith
Published on: October 16, 1997

Leading Players: Frances O'Conner (Nikki), Matt Day (Al), Chris Haywood (Detective Hummer), Andrew S. Gilbert (Detective Crean), Barry Otto (Adler Jones), Max Cullen (Stan), John Clark (Possum Harry), Barry Langrishe (Zipper Doyle).

Main Crew: prod, Bill Bennett; co-prod, Corrie Soeterboek; dir, Bill Bennett; writ, Bill Bennett; dop, Malcolm McCulloch; ed, Henry Dangar; prod des, Andrew Plumer.

Kiss or Kill is no ordinary road movie. Writer-director Bill Bennett's latest effort is an extreme, baroque, almost to the point of being surreal in style, psychological thriller. Drawing from the alternative, fast paced style of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994), and Godard's Breathless (1959), Bennett's film is cut in a jagged, but slick, form that draws the audience into his narrative.

Bill Bennett establishes his intent towards a fast-paced style and unpredictable narrative early in the work with a shocking introductory scene that leaves the audience, breathless, to ponder upon the fragility of the human condition. Jump-cut editing was used to create a fragmented version of reality through which unpredictable events flow, unbalancing Nikki's life. Nikki (later played by Frances O'Conner) is forced to watch helplessly as her mother is torched to death by a mysterious dark figure - for no apparent reason. This event leads us into an unpredictable narrative in which we are forced to ask who people are and what are their motivations? Interestingly, many of these questions are left unanswered - hidden behind a dry, dusty veil of secrecy.

As a result of the terrifying murder of her mother, Nikki grew up harboring a number of psychological problems, which seem to surface only when her conscious self is put to rest. That is, apart from her tendency to hate men, the frustrations and fears that Nikki carried with her for so many years were subdued by her hard-edged heroine facade in an attempt to regain some semblance of normality in her turbulent life. She had, however, involved herself in crime, most notably by seducing wealthy married men before drugging and robbing them as part of a 'Bonnie and Clyde'-type partnership that she had formed with her lover, Al (Matt Day).

The pair are forced to flee following one evening in which Nikki's victim dies, possibly as a result of a drug overdose. The two, fixed in their ways, take the man's possessions; among them a videotape showing paedophiliac activities that involve a national football star, Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe). A chase ensues in which Al and Nikki attempt to outrun and out-smart a pair of witty, spoofed cops and Doyle who is determined to reach the two before the police do.

Jump-cutting, coupled with the regular usage of hand-held camerawork, granted the hour-long chase sequence a fast-paced, reckless appeal that resonates a combination of the styles of American police dramas (NYPD Blue especially) and Godard's masterpiece, Breathless (1959). Still, the film's form is more than an innovative framework for the film's narrative. It represents the shattered, jigsaw-like aspect of the lead characters' situation. Both have pieces of their lives missing - pieces which each have tried to complete for the other. In the presence of such an extreme set of circumstances, however, the two are pulled apart, forcing them to ask questions about the other's past.

The tension that exists between the lovers is heightened following a string of murders that follow the two. Nikki's tendency to sleepwalk, occasionally resulting in violent acts of revenge against males (as when she attempts to torch Al in a similar manner to her mother's fate), and Al's quick temper, that sees him attack an innocent truck driver of whom he fostered suspicions, causes each to suspect the other and, in Nikki's case, to suspect herself. A seemingly irrepairable rift begins to form between the two, so eloquently portrayed through the gaze of the leading players and in the rigid editing style. In the most unlikely of twists, it is the former opposition, the two policemen, that eventually unite the couple. Their unified devotion to each other reaches a climax while they are in custody, each prepared to take the blame for the crimes that had been committed. Still, the story fails to slow down, reflecting the anarchic view of life that possesses both Al and Nikki; a life that has never treated either as they had desired. Eventually, the pieces of the jigsaw are stringed together by Possum Harry (John Clarke), an Aboriginal tracker working for the police on contract.

For a moment, we feel that the narrative has reached a state of closure, only to be greeted with a soliloquy by Nikki in which she states, "He'll never know my secret". This statement again throws the question into the air, a question posed by Bill Bennett himself, "How well do you know anyone?".

Kiss or Kill is a masterful example of a poetic realist's view of the psychological thriller. In utilising jump-cut editing, hand-held camerawork, obtuse and low-angled shots - all in the absence of any non-diegetic music - Bill Bennett has created a metaphysical, almost surreal, gateway into the subconscious. The narrative's detours can be seen as merely expressions of single trains of thought as they extend perpendicular to the main passage of the story. Each twist, each turn and each character all reinforce the story's main thrust, however.

The exuberant, wild setting in which the two are placed seems to only heighten the sense of intimacy which we, as participants in this psychological journey, share with the two. The sparseness of the desert and salt lake also lend the picture a dream-like quality that both focusses and enhances our view towards the psyches of the main characters. It helps us to realise that their frantic, unending scramble through this unknown wilderness is symbolic of their own blind journeys within themselves. Each character that they encounter stands both as a guide and as a past demon of some description that the two must overcome, or draw insight from, in order to continue on their ultimate journey - that of realising who they really are.

Kiss or Kill has breathed new life into the Australian road movie. Bill Bennett's innovative, new-wave style is the perfect framework through which the artful performances of Matt Day and Frances O'Conner resonate with youthful vitality.

 
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