Divorce, New Zealand-style, is the subject of "Smash Palace," a tense, terse film directed by Roger Donaldson. Symbolism aside, the title refers to an auto salvage business run by Al and Jacqui Shaw, a mismatched couple headed for a crash.
Theirs is no fender-bender, for even when the two make love, it's a head-on collision -- near-rape and a slugfest. Al (Bruno Lawrence) is rough and ugly -- so macho he crushes his beer can before drinking from it. His wife (Anna Jemison) is lithe, verbal, not quite a nag. She gets the "Friday Night Blues," while he devotes himself to a comeback on the pro racing circuit. Meanwhile, Al's best friend (Keith Aberdein) becomes the vehicle of her independence.
Al's rage turns to terrorism when she moves out with their eight-year-old Georgie (Greer Robson), daddy's little greasemonkey, the center of his universe. We warm to the hurt, dumb beast when he strips on her front porch, stuffing his clothes through the mailslot by way of proxy. But then he rips the door off with a tow truck and Jacqui retaliates by keeping Georgie from him.
Young Robson, an expressive young actress, makes the film more palatable and more painful all at once. Her mature interpretation of complex material is remarkable. As Georgie, she musters love and trust for her father even after he kidnaps her at gunpoint.
The cast is as fine as the direction, which is as fine as the script. But the movie is a real downer: very adult, very draining -- a more malevolent "Shoot the Moon." Donaldson doesn't ease the tensions -- dramatic, sexual or visceral. From the onset, the cinematography puts us in the driver's seat with Al as he speeds toward self-destruction. Headlights pick up a blur of winding white lines as we careen toward "Smash Palace," a movie that literally makes you carsick. SMASH PALACE -- The MacArthur.