Living in suburban Sydney, Pete and Jerry aren’t just cousins, they’re best friends. Jerry falls in love and starts a relationship with Cheryl, though he knows Pete likes her too. Pete, a small-time drug dealer, doesn’t understand why Jerry suddenly wants to settle down and make plans (he gets a job at a fast-food place and works for a pittance). Then Pete has to lie low with his dealing for a while because the police are tailing him and Jerry gets him a job at the chicken restaurant. But Pete makes trouble and walks out, losing Jerry his job as well.
User Reviews: WEST Lives unravel in this potent tale of suburban boredom and violence.
As I settled in to watch West, the story of two young under-educated slackers getting into trouble in Sydney’s western suburbs, I experienced a hedonistic urge for a geographical alternative. Why, for once, couldn’t it be East, the story of the West boys’ privileged counterparts – rich kids in sharp suits exchanging sharp talk while getting into trouble in sleek, expensive Sydney? But that hasn’t been the Australian way. We rarely see the city’s moneyed class taken apart on screen. Our writers and directors prefer to look for their stories elsewhere and it has to be said that West’s writer-director, Daniel Krige, is one of the most persuasive. The film’s opening has Pete (Khan Chittenden) and his cousin, Jerry (Nathan Phillips), drinking beer and smoking dope in their favourite haunt – under a bridge over a stormwater canal. It’s not exactly a scene rich in dramatic promise, yet when it comes to disarming your prejudices, Krige proves an expert. West’s settings are where he grew up. It’s his turf. Clearly, it fascinates and exasperates him. He also knows how to hold its extremes in delicate balance, giving us a place where boredom and violence come together repeatedly in the unholiest of alliances.
In their bunker-like retreat, Pete and Jerry are getting in the mood for a night of partying. They’re also engaged in an unusually reflective conversation. Jerry, strangely enough, wants to talk about the future. He says he still doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the year ahead – a remark that mystifies Pete. He says that they’ll do what they did last year. They’ll see what happens. He doesn’t believe in making plans. "They don’t happen. You get depressed." In these few words the film lays out its theme. For Jerry does make plans and they mark the beginning of his life’s unravelling.
At the party, we follow a bleary-eyed Pete, who is lusting after Cheryl (Gillian Alexy), a girl whose good looks and sexual swagger magnetise every male she meets. Predictably, he has no luck; she bypasses him in favour of Jerry, possibly because he’s not as stoned and can still string a few sentences together. It’s not Pete’s night. Pursuing his part-time job as a drug dealer, he offends Kenwood (Anthony Hayes), the most loathsome member of a gang of thugs, and is beaten up and robbed.
These are the basic outlines of the cousins’ circumscribed world. At night, it takes on a spurious poetry born of noise and bustle and the shimmer of neon on slick, wet pavements. But in the flat glare of daytime, all the promise and colour are leached out of it. Jerry desperately wants to escape and he takes what he hopes will be his first step by getting a regular job behind the counter of the local fast food outlet. The extent of his good intentions can be seen by his willingness to wear a cap decorated with chicken wings while making clucking jokes at his own expense.
Unimpressed, Pete just carries on as usual, lounging round with his drug-dealing boss, who leads an amiably addled half-life in front of his flat-screen television set. And when this routine wears thin, Pete goes to the bunker by the canal and sits smoking and drinking with Mick (Michael Dorman), another equally aimless twentysomething. Mick is afflicted with a stammer and an abiding pessimism. He also displays an unnerving preoccupation with moral hypotheses. "Would you wear a condom if you raped a girl?" he asks Pete, who’s so shocked by the question that he can’t stop thinking about it, or its sub-text: that the vacuum created by frustration and hopelessness could conceivably become toxic and cause him to do something he’d forever regret.
When the inevitable tragedy happens, they’re all caught up in it. Saddest of all is the good-natured Jerry, who falls in love with Cheryl and makes the mistake of telling her so. It’s a poignant performance by Phillips, whose Jerry is a compact, energetic figure, brimming over with a new and touching faith in the power of his own will. Chittenden’s Pete is just as convincing. Lanky and soulful, he moves to a slower tempo than his cousin but his seeming passivity is deceptive. Behind it lies a deep reservoir of anger.
Krige’s grasp of the narrative slips occasionally to make you wince with an inconsistency or a lapse in logic but his talent for the elliptical saves him at every turn. He has a flair for the kind of moment that can sum up a lifetime. He doesn’t have to use words to spell out the contradictions in the bond between the cousins, for instance. He catches it in a single shot of them as they lie around smoking and talking in the bedroom they share in Jerry’s mother’s house. It’s in the way the light falls across their bodies, forming sharply edged shadows that both link and separate them.
West is life in the bell jar. You may not want to be there but you can’t deny the potency of the experience. Even so, I’m still hankering after East. For the right filmmaker, it could turn up narrative gold.
- Sandra Hall, Reviewer