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1% (BFI London Film Festival)

Australian, Festival, Review, This Week 7 Comments

In the very opening moments of Stephen McCallum’s 1%, the audience is assaulted by infamously loud noise band Swans instantly filling the cinema with a cacophony of distorted chords while singer Michael Gira repeatedly screams “lunacy, lunacy”, like the howl of a tortured Greek chorus calling out from the gates of Hades itself, as its denizens, a horde of leather clad outlaws on motorcycles, roar forth through a tunnel into the night of the city. It becomes abundantly clear that, much like the road these men are travelling down, the following film will be a dark, harrowing journey toward a final destination that can only be one of madness and death.

The Copperhead Motorcycle Club has gone from strength to strength under the interim leadership of their Vice President Paddo (Ryan Corr). Membership is up and they are on the brink of a deal with a rival club to launder their ill-gotten gains, turning their profit legitimate and beyond the reach of the law, but when club President Knuck (Matt Nable) is released from prison, he is determined to return the club to the status quo, through any means necessary. Paddo reluctantly steps aside, but when his brother Skink (Josh McConville) breaks club rules and is exiled it sets the two leaders down the road toward violent confrontation.

Shot on a small budget on the back streets of Perth, Western Australia, 1% is a lean, mean, well-oiled genre machine, continuing the Australian cinematic tradition of grim, violent portrayals of toxic masculinity. Immediate comparisons to ’70s Ozploitation classic Stone are inevitable but there are shades of Romper Stomper in the film’s group dynamics, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead in its portrayal of the way prison focuses criminality more than it rehabilitates, and even Wake in Fright with its feeling of inescapable claustrophobia. But what actor/screenwriter Matt Nable and director Stephen McCallum manage to do is to embrace the Shakespearean nature of the story that lends the film an air of the epic. These men are not stereotypes, they are archetypes, acting out humanity’s violent tendencies as a way for the audience to experience the darkest extremes of our very nature.

Yet amongst this archetypal milieu there are political concerns to be found in the motorcycle club as microcosm for the current political climate. Paddo, being the young upstart, has his eye on the horizon, to the future of what his beloved club could be, whereas Knuck, the old warrior, is the voice of the past which rejects change; Knuck is Trump, he is Brexit, the obsessive view of the nostalgic past that refuses to look beyond the immediately knowable. His time in prison sharpened his resolve, but it also brought to the surface homosexual tendencies, which in his world would be viewed as a weakness, and, like Paddo’s ideas for the club’s future, he refuses to acknowledge them.

All of these machinations would be for nought, though, without a terrific ensemble cast to give voice to these characters and director McCallum has assembled a formidable one. The aforementioned three male leads; Corr, Nable (terrifying) and McConville are superb and the always brilliant Aaron Pedersen appears as Sugar, the leader of a rival club, in a very welcome extended cameo. However, for all the quintessential hardcore male-ness on display the true power lies, in both the film and the performances, with the women. Simone Kessell is a powerhouse as Knuck’s wife and keeper of the flame Hayley, while Abbey Lee brings a quiet intelligence to the scheming Katrina, Paddo’s girlfriend and Hayley’s heir-presumptive.

1% is a gloriously rendered and assured debut feature, but if there were to be a caveat it would be that the film is a brutal watch. Thankfully, McCallum and company don’t wallow in the brutality but rather use it as a means of portraying the damaged and damaging lives these people lead. In fact, it is the violence that happens off screen that is the most emotionally affecting. But what we do see is captured with an unblinking intensity by cinematographer Shelley Farthing-Dawe, who also captures the suburbs of Perth with an eye for unexpected detail.

If 1% was just a well-made motorcycle picture it would still be considered an achievement of genre filmmaking, but Matt Nable’s screenplay and Stephen McCallum’s direction aims for something more epic in scope. The film feels like it could be classified as Ozploitation 2.0, bringing a modern update to a classic formula but still using the genre to address universal concerns. It is grim, gritty and violent but to avoid the film on those terms is missing the point; we currently live in violent times and genre films can provide that experiential lens through which we can confront the agony, the ecstasy and the lunacy of the world around us.