Monday, February 4, 2013

Romper Stomper

Romper Stomper
Director: Geoffrey Wright
Starring: Russell Crowe, Daniel Pollock, Jacqueline McKenzie

Romper Stomper is many things, but one thing it is not is apologetic.  “Unflinching.”  “Gritty”  “Intense.”  Yes, yes, and yes.  It’s also rather unpleasant.  That’s not a bad thing per se, but the scant 90 minutes that you spend with this movie will not be the happiest of your life.   It’s perhaps most famous as the film that put Russell Crowe on the map, and although I’m not the biggest Russell Crowe fan in the world, it’s easy to see why he became a star after his turn here.  What I ultimately take from Romper Stomper, though, is a bromance flick found in a rather unexpected place.

Hando (Crowe) is the de facto leader of a group of neo-Nazi skinheads living in Melbourne.  Davey (Pollock) is his best mate and right hand man.  Enraged at what they perceive to be an encroaching Vietnamese population, the gang enacts brutal retribution on local Asian innocents.  Epileptic and drug-addicted waif Gabe (McKenzie) catches Hando’s eye, and she begins accompanying the gang on their beatings.  One day, the Asians start to fight back against the gang in a brutally lethal manner, and this triggers the slow disintegration of the group that plays out for the rest of the film.  Eventually, we are left only with Hando, Davey, and Gabe, and the inevitable violent love triangle.

Hando's insane.  Seriously.  Insane.

There is a lot of hate in this movie.  Hi, it’s about neo-Nazis.  You can’t expect heaping loads of tolerance and love.  Even knowing this in advance, it’s still very hard for me to stomach this type of cruel bigotry.  Hando’s gang is as brutal as a bunch of thugs can get without guns.  Watching them beat the crap out of random people for no sane reason at all is a challenge.  But much in the same way that A Clockwork Orange starts with several ruthlessly cold fights then shifts its focus, Romper Stomper does as well.  (In fact, there are many parallels between these two films.)  After a long and chaotic fight where the Asian community fights back and fights back hard, the skinheads are no longer all-powerful.  They are beaten, bloody, and they have been forced into a humiliating retreat.  For me, it helped me to watch the rest of the film knowing that this group was not invincible.  Knowing that such hateful speech and cruel, unnecessary actions would ultimately have to be paid for made the bitter pill a little easier to swallow.  There is still controversy to this day as to whether this film glorified the skinheads or was a testimonial against them.  I see nothing about any kind of glory in this movie; it is particularly unglamorous. 

After the turning point fight, the movie changes its momentum.  The gang is on the run and they are breaking down.  The story shifts from being about skinheads to being about Hando, Davey, and Gabe.  This is a much more typical and common movie story – two guys and one girl – but I was intrigued and invested in it.  What really helps to set apart this particular love triangle, because criminy we’ve seen a billion love triangles before, is that it plays up all three angles of the triangle instead of just two.  This is not merely a story about Gabe and Hando versus Gabe and Davey.  Hando and Davey’s relationship is just as important, if not more so, than either of their interactions with Gabe.  Skinheads are hardly gentle people, but watching Hando put a makeshift pillow under Davey’s head when Davey is passed out drunk is surprising in its kindness.  Hando kisses Davey several times, and Davey seems to be the only one in the group who can exert any sort of control over Hando.  Hando may be having sex with Gabe, but he loves Davey.  Even Gabe herself notes to Davey, “Hando doesn’t act like he likes me.  He likes you, though, doesn’t he.”  Indeed, when I first smelled the triangle in the air of the film, I wasn’t entirely certain if it was because Davey wanted Gabe for himself, or whether Davey wanted Hando for himself. 

How strongly is the male love angle played up in Romper Stomper?  Well, I’ll put it this way.  In an extended home invasion sequence (another massively huge tip of the hat to A Clockwork Orange there), the piece of classical music heard in the background is Bizet’s “Au fond du temple saint” from the opera The Pearl Fishers.  “Au fond du temple saint” is one of the more famous pieces from all of opera.  It’s a duet between a tenor and a baritone, and in it, the two men sing about how they both fell in love with the same priestess, but that they decided to give up their love of her because of their friendship with one another.  This song was not chosen randomly.  Any piece of classical music may have sufficed, but no, Wright picks one that specifically mirrors the plight of Hando, Davey, and Gabe.  This is total and full-on bromance, albeit of the psychotic variety.

Additionally, the performances of all three players in the triangle are very strong.  Russell Crowe as Hando embraces his inner psychotic, playing him with a frighteningly quiet power.  The characters I fear the most are those who do not shout and make lots of unnecessary noise, and this is Hando.  Crowe is great in Hando’s physicality.  Again, it’s easy to see why this movie was the first step in propelling him to stardom.  As for Davey, Pollock is all shyness and unassuming gentle nature.  He’s even likeable!  Well, as much as a skinhead could be.  Pollock manages to play the harder role of the quiet sidekick who secretly, and maybe even unknowingly, wields power over the leader.  As the girl who comes between them, McKenzie is the Australian drug-addled gang version of a manic pixie dream girl.  I like that McKenzie gives Gabe her own strength, making her no one’s victim and not in need of any man to take care of her.  I like the touch of Gabe’s wardrobe changing as she became more entrenched in Hando’s gang; she goes from girlie frocks to a military style sweater and boots, but then back to her original frock when she strikes out again on her own.

Perhaps the reason this triangle works so well on screen is because, unnerving as it may sound, there were apparently real life parallels.  While filming, McKenzie and Pollock were romantically involved.  For his part, Crowe had made a film prior to this with Pollock (Proof) so the two had clearly worked together before and formed a bond.  Sadly – very sadly – Pollock, himself a heroin addict, committed suicide weeks after Romper Stomper wrapped filming by throwing himself under a train.  Russell Crowe’s band wrote a song about it, called “The Night That Davey Hit the Train.”  This kind of awful true story gives the tale that’s played out in Romper Stomper an extra dose of tragic pathos.  

The sound choices are very good.  The score is full of very hollow effects, lots of echoes, and a great deal of sounds that remind me of metal on metal.  It gives the film a vicious, biting feeling, but also one that underlines the emotional emptiness of the skinhead lifestyle.  The only thing most of the gang members feel is blind hate.  What sort of existence is that, to be compelled by such an empty feeling? 

It took two days and two viewings of Romper Stomper for me to finally decide where I stand on it.  Watching the first half is difficult, because that is when the neo-Nazi skinhead mentality is presented most fully, and neo-Nazi skinhead philosophy is not pleasant.  However, I think the triangle of Hando, Davey, and Gabe that takes center stage in the second half is one of the most intriguing, intense, and oddly enough, emotionally compelling relationships I’ve seen in some time.  The final beach scene is one that sticks to my ribs, infects my brain, and refuses to let me forget it. 

Hando and Davey: psychotic skinhead bromance, for real, yo.  Hando + Davey 4-eva.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10.  As distasteful as it first seemed to me, I really like this one.  It’s not pleasant, oh no, but it’s intense and compelling.


  1. I completely agree on the Clockwork Orange references, right down to Crowe taking a long, refreshing drink of milk right out of the bottle when he gets up.

    I actually enjoyed the violence...when it was the skinheads getting their asses handed to them by the Asians. The triangle bit was a little less interesting to me simply because, like you said, it's a pretty standard movie construct.

    I didn't know of the suicide when I was watching the film, but I learned about it shortly afterwards.

    1. I definitely "enjoyed" the violence more when the skinheads got beat up. They had it coming, man.

      While *I* got sucked into the love triangle, I can also logically see the argument of "typical love triangle" here.

      Ditto for me and the suicide - I tell you, though, it made me see the story in a bit of a bleaker light. (as if the ending wasn't dark enough...)

      Yeah, I think you mentioned in your comment on Steve's blog about Clockwork Orange that we also have the beating up of the old man in the tunnel at the beginning, and Hando in the white suspenders and pants. And then the home invasion.

  2. Fantastic point about all three sides of the love triangle. For me, the Hando/Davey bromance is first and foremost. I think that's an interesting aspect of the film--while there aren't specifically homosexual overtones there, there sort of are, as there are with any male-dominated social group, especially those that would be the most dead-set against them.

    You're right--it is a difficult film, but it's one worth getting through.

    1. At first glance, on a superficial level, it's more Gabe/fill in the blank, but as the movie progresses, the more I thought about it, Hando/Davey is the core. I like your note about homosexual overtones - absolutely true. And, as you point out, rather ironic considering they are skinheads.