There’s a tradition of gritty, hard-hitting crime cinema in Australia dating back to the local filmmaking renaissance of the early 1970s.
Crime films down under are typically city-based, with a strong social realist focus and often inspired by the exploits of real-life criminals and notorious criminal events – a combination that can be traced back to the influence of popular, long-running local police procedural television shows of the 1960s, such as Homicide and Division 4, which drew heavily on real police cases.
Yet Australia’s fascination with true crime goes back further still, to the nation’s origins as a British penal colony and the exploits of bushrangers – escaped convicts who eluded the authorities to become bandits. These outlaws were a major focus of the young Australian film industry in the early 20th century, notably in The Story of the Kelly Gang, Australia’s – and the world’s – first feature-length film, produced in Melbourne in 1906.
More recently, while many Australian crime films have explored the gender and particularly class dimensions of what gets defined as criminal behaviour, one issue seldom tackled is white Australia’s bloody relationship with the country’s Indigenous inhabitants. This is what makes the work of Aboriginal writer and director Ivan Sen so interesting. His most recent film, Goldstone (2016), which is now available to watch on BFI Player, involves Aboriginal police detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) fighting a personal crisis while investigating the disappearance of a young Chinese girl in an outback mining town.
Uniquely, Goldstone tackles themes around Aboriginal place and identity, as well as the underbelly of Australia’s mining boom. If watching it whets your whistle to explore other Australian crime movies, here are 10 more to track down.
Money Movers (1978)
Director Bruce Beresford
This early career effort by Bruce Beresford sees two brothers, Brian and Eric Jackson (Bryan Brown and Terence Donovan), scheming to knock over the counting house of the armoured car firm they drive for. Their plan comes unstuck when it attracts the attention of cold-blooded businessman-cum-criminal Henderson (another veteran Australian actor, Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell), who needs money to refurbish his ailing manufacturing business.
Adelaide and Sydney are anonymous as filming locations, the story mainly taking place in truck lots, factory floors, container yards and neon-lit streets. This masculine tale superbly ratchets up the tension and the violence leading up to the heist, and is also notable for its very prominent sense of the class politics. Unlike a lot of the movies from the Ozploitation period that have since gone on to enjoy cult acclaim, Money Movers remains little known or appreciated.
Director Phillip Noyce
Set in Sydney at the peak of summer, Heatwave features inner-city residents led by upper-class-woman-turned-radical Kate Dean (Judy Davis) protesting the demolition of their street for a state-of-the-art, environmentally sound housing development, designed by idealistic but naive architect Stephen West (Richard Moir). West and Dean are pushed into an unlikely relationship as the tactics against the residents become more violent and the true nature of Eden’s backers clearer.
Director Phillip Noyce delivers a complex story that refuses to tie up every plot strand, and his layered use of sound works brilliantly to create a constant feeling of nagging anxiety. Heatwave is one of two Australian films based loosely on the real-life disappearance in 1975 of Juanita Nielsen, a prominent local activist against mass development in inner Sydney. The other, The Killing of Angel Street (1981), is also worth seeing.
The Empty Beach (1985)
Director Chris Thomson
Fictional private investigators have been a rarity on the big screen in Australia. The Empty Beach is based on a book of the same name, part of a long-running series by author Peter Corris featuring gumshoe Cliff Hardy. Bryan Brown is perfectly cast as Hardy, the down-at-heel PI who’s employed by a rich widow to track down her husband, missing off iconic Bondi Beach.
The film did poorly on release – one quip was it should have been called “the empty cinema” – and rights issues mean it’s still unavailable on DVD. This is a pity because the film has a fast-moving plot that’s full of twists and a surprisingly dark, almost noir vibe. Cinematographer John Seale masterfully contrasts the laidback feel of Sydney beachside life in the early 80s – the surf, the brilliance of the sunlight at the height of summer – with the murky, sleazy feel of Bondi at night.
Director Steve Jodrell
A crime film that combines elements of western and rape-revenge tropes, Shame opens with Asta Cadell, a tough Perth barrister (Deborra-Lee Furness), stranded mid-riding holiday in a Western Australian country town after her motorbike breaks down. When the teenage daughter (Simone Buchanan) of the local mechanic she is staying with is gang-raped, Asta is drawn, reluctantly at first, then with growing determination, to confront a group of males, headed by the son of a wealthy businesswoman, who have been raping local young women with impunity.
The only big screen credit of director Steve Jodrell, based on a script by Beverley Blankenship and Michael Brindley, Shame is a dark, multifaceted, pitch perfect take on the issues around sexual violence, and the difficulties in standing up to and redressing it. Furness is terrific as a strong woman confronting small-town prejudice and the limits of the law.
Blue Murder (1995)
This two-part series by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation easily rates among the country’s best true-crime television. Set mainly in Sydney in the 1970s and early 80s, Blue Murder depicts the toxic bromance between two real-life characters, criminal Neddy Smith (Tony Martin) and police detective Roger ‘The Dodger’ Rogerson (Richard Roxburgh) – the latter a rare Australian example of a trope more common in American crime television and cinema: the hard-charging cop, not afraid to cross the line to fight crime, who in the process becomes a criminal himself.
The bulk of the story follows the events after Rogerson’s decision to grant Smith the ‘green light’ to commit crime without fear of police reprisal (and sometimes with their active cooperation). With slick storytelling and rapid-fire editing, Blue Murder depicts the reality of police corruption in a no-holds-barred manner almost unthinkable on Australian television today.
The Boys (1998)
Director Rowan Woods
A sense of impending violence is palpable from the very first frame of Rowan Woods’ debut film. Vicious sociopath Brett Sprague (David Wenham) gets out of prison after serving a sentence for assault and returns to the house of his mother (Lynette Curran). Through a mixture of force and manipulation he shreds the fragile sense of normality she has created over her home and his two younger brothers, who he goads into helping him commit an unspeakable crime.
Based on the infamous 1986 rape and murder of a Sydney nurse, The Boys is a blistering portrayal of violence and family crisis. Wenham is sensational in a role that launched his career. Curran’s performance is also first rate, as is a young Toni Collette as Brett’s girlfriend, increasingly frightened of him but unsure how to escape the relationship. Amping things up even further are a brooding score and innovative camerawork, which invests everyday domestic objects with a sense of menace.
Two Hands (1999)
Director Gregor Jordan
A combination of heist film and coming-of-age romance, Two Hands is worth seeing if only to be reminded just how good an actor Heath Ledger was before his untimely death at the age of just 28. Ledger is Jimmy, a kind-hearted, none-too-bright barker at a stripclub owned by criminal boss, Pando (Brown again). A botched money delivery sees Jimmy in debt to Pando and forced to rob a suburban bank to get the cash. Entwined with this story is Jimmy’s romance with a visiting woman from the country (Rose Byrne), the adventures of a couple of inner-city kids who have stolen Jimmy’s delivery cash, and a narration by Jimmy’s dead criminal brother.
Two Hands boasts some wonderful scenes set in Sydney’s now almost completely gentrified former vice area of Kings Cross.
Director Andrew Dominik
Andrew Dominik’s biopic of career criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read is another excellent directorial debut. The film’s tagline, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn”, was the modus operandi of the former gangster, a tabloid newspaper commentator and author of bestselling exposés of questionable accuracy about Melbourne’s criminal underworld.
Beginning with his 16-year prison stretch for kidnapping, the story shifts to Read’s release and half-hearted effort to put his life together and reconcile with his girlfriend, while settling old scores, then back to prison, where he writes his first bestseller. Eric Bana plays Chopper with scene-stealing zest, bouncing off an excellent supporting cast. Dominik injects the story with an unpredictable, at times almost surreal feel and bursts of violence that veer between horrific and almost comedic. Chopper is a wonderful tale of low-life lawlessness and a sharp comment on the Australian public’s fascination with real-life gangsters.
Animal Kingdom (2010)
Director David Michôd
After the death of his junkie mother, 17-year-old Josh (James Frecheville) goes to live with his grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver) and her brood of four criminal sons, who are locked in a battle with the hardened police armed robbery squad. Uncle Baz (Joel Edgerton) is the only one smart enough to see the family’s criminal days are numbered. His death is the signal for all hell to break loose.
Writer and director David Michod allows Animal Kingdom’s plot to unfold with little context, creating a sense of fear and disorientation. In what was only his second role, Frecheville is the weak link, but his lack of dramatic ability is more than balanced out by the other performances, including Weaver’s chilling turn as the scheming matriarch who will do anything to hold her family together. One of several large and small screen productions based on a notorious Melbourne crime family, the Pettingills.
Mystery Road (2013)
Director Ivan Sen
The first of Ivan Sen’s films to feature Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan, Mystery Road sees the Aboriginal detective investigate the murder of a young Indigenous woman in a small town in the Queensland outback. Swan soon links the crime to the fatality of another young Aboriginal woman, local criminal interests involved in drugs and prostitution, and a possible connection much closer to his own life.
Mystery Road is a solid rural noir, but what makes it particularly significant is Sen’s examination of the dark side of outback Australia, and, more importantly, the pressures on Swan as a black man working in a white police force, in a fragmented Indigenous culture. As in its sequel, Goldstone, Sen is not afraid to take risks, the biggest one being his use of genre cinema to engage white Australian audiences in a dialogue about racism.