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‘The Rooster’ // Bonsai Films

‘The Rooster’ was unremarkable.

Mark Leonard Winter’s directorial debut is a tragedy with hints of comedy that reels you in, lets you off the hook, and then attempts to reel you in some more with varying degrees of success. As a mystery it doesn’t have a lot to offer, as an exploration of masculinity and solitude it has some interesting insights, as a vehicle for Hugo Weaving to shout, curse and generally act insane for over an hour it certainly delivers.

The screenplay for ‘The Rooster’ (also penned by Winter) is at once simple and convoluted. Initially there is a mystery presented surrounding a small-town police officer, Dan (Phoenix Raei), as he investigates the death of his friend Steve (Rhys Mitchell). As he investigates, he comes across the last person to see Steve alive, an isolated hermit (Weaving).

While seemingly setting the audience up for a mystery, the story instead pivots towards a simple character drama/comedy about the odd friendship that forms between the Hermit and Dan. The Hermit constantly veers towards confrontation, is extremely anti-social, swearing and screaming at Dan, but nevertheless Dan keeps returning to the Hermit’s cabin. A majority of the movie is just these two characters talking, clashing, drinking and playing table tennis.

‘The Rooster’ ultimately aims for naturalism with its storytelling, a character-driven drama that is light on plot. However, it stumbles towards the end when it attempts to bring the thriller plotline back. To avoid giving much away, there is a late twist surrounding the Hermit that puts the character in a new light, but it ultimately feels like a last-minute addition that doesn’t tie the story together as well as it should.

Weaving’s performance is very much the main draw of the film. He embodies a bitter, crude man that borders on caricature. Raei’s performance as Dan offers a meek, mild-mannered protagonist for Weaving to play off. Their dynamic has some interesting moments as Dan begins to embrace the more freeing parts of the Hermit’s lifestyle, but ultimately can get repetitive as they fall into a routine of the Hermit doing something odd, Dan being confused but fascinated by it, and Dan accidentally angering the Hermit. The actors make a lot of their material, but their material is stretched quite thin.

Another star of the story is Central Victoria, where the movie is set. The environment is key to the movie’s atmosphere and one way the movie excels is that every character, building and dialogue feels authentically rural Australian. Even Weaving’s Hermit feels like he could be hanging around in a shack in a real Australian forest. As a work of localised fiction, Winter does well to make the location feel interesting, and tells a story that would not fit in a different setting.

Cinematographer Craig Barden also gives the movie a strong visual identity, framing the scenery in eerie lighting and making a lot of similar scenes look dynamic and distinct from each other. It’s rare to see an Aussie film that looks cold, both literally and symbolically, but the Central Victorian setting and Barden’s visual stylings help effectively portray both.

Aesthetically, the movie often evokes the illusion of depth without much of the substance of it. You’ll find some prolonged shots of a crucifix and some visions of a naked woman holding a rooster. Sure, these things suggest some meaning, but one also gets the impression that it is also ticking the boxes that say, “this movie is very deep and we want you to think about what it means.” Even the titular rooster is an apt allegory for Dan’s relationship with the Hermit (Dan owns a rooster that often attacks him, yet Dan feels obligated to still take care of it and is bereaved at its death), but it still never purports to give us any insight into his character, only reiterating what we already know.

Harsh as my analysis may be, The Rooster does have a soul. At its heart it is a story about emotional vulnerability, and if it didn’t try to pass itself off as a thriller at various points it would be a much better movie for it. Weaving and Raei show some pathos in their performances and Winter’s script has something to say about the damaging effects of loneliness and the healing effects of friendship. If you’re interested in that, as well as a lot of scenery chewing from Hugo Weaving, it’s worth giving a shot.

‘The Rooster’ opens in Australian cinemas on 22 February, 2024.

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