By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 19, 2010
Samson, who is one half of the Australian couple at the heart of the strange - and strangely compelling - "Samson and Delilah," isn't easy to like. The impoverished aboriginal teen (Rowan McNamara) is a chronic huffer, waking up each morning to take a long drag on whatever fumes are left in the battered - and by now probably almost dried out - paint can he keeps by his rat's nest of a mattress. To call it a bed would be an overstatement.
Later, after he has walloped his guitarist brother upside the head for no good reason - or maybe for playing the same ska tune one too many times - and absconded in a stolen car with his neighbor Delilah (Marissa Gibson), Samson switches his inhalant of choice to gasoline. For much of the film, he keeps his nose buried in a sawed-off soda bottle filled with petrol. Samson is also, apparently, at least partially deaf and largely mute. The only word he utters in the film is his own, almost unintelligible name. Whether that silence is due to more than an obvious stammer, and whether his deafness is the result of something other than ear wax, is not clear. The filmmaker Warwick Thornton plays it cagey about his intentions in the film's production notes.
In any event, Samson is a singularly unsavory character. His traveling companion - to call Delilah his girlfriend would be another overstatement - doesn't even seem to care much for him, and pelts him with pebbles from time to time. And that's before she gets abducted, presumably raped and then hit by a car, thanks in part to Samson's obliviousness about her whereabouts and well-being. Delilah doesn't speak much either. The film is all but dialogue-free, making it stark and open-ended.
Even if he isn't hearing impaired or brain-damaged, he's terrible boyfriend material.
And yet Thornton's defiantly unromantic film exerts a surprising gravitational pull. Featuring all non-actors, it feels less like a love story - or even a contrivance of any kind - than, at times, a public service announcement about the dirt-poor lives of many of Australia's rural Aborigines and their exploitation by the white man. One subplot involves Delilah's grandmother, a folk artist who sells her paintings to fancy city galleries. (The artist Mitjili Gibson, who plays the grandmother, is Marissa Gibson's actual grandmother.) Delilah herself tries to take up the craft of painting, without much initial success.
The tale is a bleak one. The only other main character is the homeless man Gonzo, who offers food and companionship - and is an even worse role model than Samson - to the film's two young protagonists. He's played by the filmmaker's real-life alcoholic brother, Scott Thornton, which lends the movie a chilling, cinema verite feel.
The signs of hope are few, but not entirely absent. The film may be hard as hell to watch, but it's even harder to look away from.
Contains substance abuse, violence, cursing and animal carcasses. In Warlpiri and English with English subtitles.