Perhaps it's just as well that a movie as remarkable as Roger Donaldson's "Smash Palace," an incisive and compelling account of a marital smashup, took a while to straggle into town. Now at one of the small auditoriums of the MacArthur, this brilliantly titled and accomplished second feature may have been a victim of poor timing when it opened 10 months ago in New York.
"Smash Palace" reflects a systematic effort to account for a marital failure by referring back to episodes in the past of the estranged couple, Al and Jacqui Shaw, a painfully convincing mismatch as embodied by Bruno Lawrence and Anna Jemison.
Ready or not for another top-flight filmmaker from Down Under (although displaced to New Zealand), Donaldson is the genuine article. He reveals a dynamic command of the medium from the opening sequence, a disarming metaphorical stunner in which we observe the approach of a solitary, fast-moving car over an undulating highway; all of a sudden it spins out of control and comes to rest upside-down, a flattened wreck. Al Shaw is the wrecker who arrives momentarily in a tow truck to cart the wreckage away, to a vast auto-parts warehouse and salvage yard known as Smash Palace, a family business carved out of an otherwise unmolested patch of countryside, dominated by a snowcapped volcanic mountain on the horizon.
Upon entering the premises we discover that Al's marriage is edging ever closer to a blowup, caused by Jacqui's understandable dissatisfaction with a remote, graceless domicile that suits only her husband. Well, not only Al, but that's an additional sore point. Their young daughter Georgie (Greer Robson) is content growing up at Smash Palace, puttering around in the midget racer that her beloved dad, a master mechanic and former Grand Prix driver, has built for her, and hanging around the garage to watch him work. But Jacqui despises the place and has reason to resent Al for deciding to roost there in such preoccupied, selfish fulfillment. It was a destination she hadn't envisioned when they met in Europe, during his racing career, or when they returned to New Zealand during her pregnancy, ostensibly to attend the funeral of Al's father and settle the property. For eight years she's been urging him to sell Smash Palace, a family inheritance he obviously has no intention of relinquishing.
Victims of a delayed-action incompatibility that might not have surfaced in any other setting, the Shaws eventually separate the morning after a terrifying domestic row, prompted by Al's obstinate refusal to accommodate Jacqui's desperate appeal to sell the yard and move out. An extraordinary sequence, it culminates in Al's clumsy, appalling attempt at reconciliation by sexual assault, an unusually graphic and powerful distillation of erotic desperation and degradation. At the same time, it's punctuated by stinging inserts that illustrate the immediate, impulsive effects of this violence on Georgie, who huddles in her room, idly flicking a flashlight on and off while listening to the uproar, which finally drives her to flee the house and take refuge in the back seat of one of the wrecks.
Al remains the principal wrecker in this case of marital disaster, and ultimately his rage drives him around the bend. However, Jacqui contributes her share of miscalculations and exquisite little betrayals to the crisis, first by cultivating a love affair with Al's best friend, an easygoing cop named Ray Foley (played with extremely likable diffidence and chagrin by Keith Aberdein) and then by going to court to restrict his access to Georgie, a tactic that prompts him to retaliate in hopelessly crazy, criminal terms by abducting his daughter at gunpoint and lighting out for the bush.
The only bewildering element in a screenplay of otherwise admirable precision and coherence is a superfluous subplot which portrays Al as a victim of police brutality, engineered by a nasty colleague of the honorable Ray. It's tempting to believe that this utterly expendable material might have been forced on Donaldson by some wacko producer, because it obscures a point that never seems in doubt--Al's lack of a rational justification for going off the deep end. The whole point, one assumed, was that he just couldn't help himself from taking crazy reprisals.
In a way his violence seems rather more predictable and logical than the rages that welled up in the Albert Finney character in "Shoot the Moon." Al is defined from the outset as a physical, instinctive, impulsive sort of guy. There's no need to identify the law as his deliberate enemy, since legal measures are irrelevant to such a fundamental sense of outraged masculinity and paternity. It's easier for Al to express himself in action than in words, and his actions are cleverly calibrated to remind you that dangerous behavior in his particular case is a slight but terrifying exaggeration of what seems a spontaneous, inventive sort of jock's humor when he's acting normally, or at least less than certifiable. You rather expect Al to act on violent impulse when frustrated or thwarted. The uncontrollable, destructive impulses of his counterpart in "Shoot the Moon" were camouflaged by a contemplative, brooding, intellectual temperament. When he erupted, the emotion seemed to originate in a primitive core that took the character as well as the audience by dreadful surprise. That core is discovered by merely scratching the surface of Bruno Lawrence's Al.
Arguably, "Shoot the Moon" was getting at something a bit more profound by uncovering the violence that simmered in an overcivilized sort of humiliated family man. Nevertheless, "Smash Palace" shares a similar tragic perception of the emotional wreckage created by marital conflict, especially on the children caught in the middle. It also shares a sense of guilty apprehension about the psychological danger signals within men who find themselves exiled or alienated from home or kids, typically as a consequence of their own folly.