Dir:- Leon Ford
Starr:- Ryan Kwanten, Maeve Dermody, Patrick Brammall, Toby Schmitz
This charming little Australian comedy-drama from the actor-director who played Edward ‘Hillbilly’ Jones in The Pacific, succeeds by investing its slight and saccharine plot with a stubbornly pragmatic realism. Shot in and around Sydney the film looks at once quirkily surreal and grittily unpretentious. This is a trick that Aussie cinema has been pulling off since Peter Weir sent his cars out to eat Paris, but it’s nonetheless a trick that bears repeating.
Ryan Kwanten, of True Blood celebrity, plays the eponymous title character. When playing Jason Stackhouse, Kwanten is a sinewy, muscled ball of unthinking sexual energy, so it comes as quite a surprise to see him so absurdly restrained, introverted and mannered, as Griff. Working in a dead-end call-centre job by day, Griff spends his nights imagining himself as Sydney’s very own dark avenger. His older brother Tim (neatly portrayed by Patrick Brammall) has had to come back from Adelaide to try to help Griff get his delusions under control. Whilst out at a restaurant one evening Tim meets Melody (played by the arrestingly beautiful Maeve Dermody), a frankly odd young woman, who quickly manages to worm her way inscrutably into Tim’s affections. Whereas Tim is a fairly rational, down-to-earth kind of guy, Melody is a troubled woman who talks in scientific abstractions, still lives with her parents and has the belief that if she concentrates hard enough she can align the spaces between the atoms in a wall with the spaces between the atoms in her body, allowing her to walk through the wall. From the moment then that Melody is revealed to be Tim’s girlfriend it seems unlikely that she is going to end up with anyone other than Griff.
The movie bears more than a passing resemblance to the Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson romantic comedy Benny & Joon. As with that movie the two protagonists of Griff the Invisible are adult-children who are having intense difficulties keeping a handle upon reality. Likewise the relationship between Griff and Melody has the potential to trivialise the rather more serious problems of mental illness. The mildly predictable nature of the action is, however, almost inconsequential here, as the film is not really about the originality of its plot, but rather the entirely unique detailing of Griff and Melody’s relationship.
During the day Griff works in a dull open-plan, cubicled office, making and answering sales calls, whilst being generally harassed by the office bully Tony (played to odious perfection by Toby Schmitz). His work colleagues see him as being a bit of a ‘weirdo’, whilst his middle-aged boss, Gary (David Webb), tries to give him tips on fitting in (basically, chat more). Ford does a good job of depicting the workplace as a dull, soulless, life-sapping, colour-drained place. In fact throughout the film the use of location and the attention to colour is superb. Sydney emerges as a grimy, post-industrial metropolis, with the constrictive feel of a small-town. Whilst the colours tend toward the bland end of the spectrum, except for those moments when Griff and Melody are engaging in some kind of fantasy play, at which point Ford introduces radiant, bold elements of primary colour (such as Griff’s strikingly yellow rain Mack).
Griff’s home space is likewise muted and worn, although he imagines himself the proud possessor of a hi-tech miniature Bat-cave. Ford does a good job of shifting seamlessly between the alternate planes of reality created by the imaginations of his central characters. Initially the film has the feel of a cheap, knock-off Kick-Ass derivative, until the point where Griff creates an invisibility suit for himself using lemons and baking soda. When the ‘reality’ that is at the centre of the movie so clearly resists indulging Griff’s fantastical delusions, it makes for some absurdly funny sequences (Griff’s being caught breaking into his workplace), interposed between some crushingly harsh reality-checks (the bluntness of the Police Officer’s assessment). Although the film strays frequently into overtly twee terrain, it always leaves itself the capacity to pull back from the brink of all-out-slush, and usually does just that.
The perfect storm that’s created by Griff and Melody’s coming together, forms the crux of the story. Separately they are two oddball individuals struggling to make sense of the world on their own terms. Together they are a deluded force for change, that at times seems capable of redefining reality. During one of their first encounters Melody tells Griff of her theory about people happening to exist upon multiple planes of consciousness. Later on she demonstrates to Griff her commitment to her particular take on existence, by telling him about how she does surveys about surveys and protests against protests. These self-contained little assaults on ‘normal’ behaviour, or upon the mundanity of life’s possible options, strike a chord with Griff, who, more than anything, requires a sense of an audience to make his fantasies a more plausible ‘reality’. Despite the narrowness of the film’s concerns, it does actually raise some thoughtful points about when normalcy becomes mundanity, and how ‘normal’ can become an almost totalitarian term of confinement, restriction and limitation.
To some degree Leon Ford succeeds in making Griff the Invisible just about strange enough to justify its main themes. He is aided and abetted in this task by the gently, goggle-eyed scattishness of Dermody’s performance and the utterly convincing turn by Kwanten, who never quite lets the audience accept he’s just a loon. Alongside these strongly textured central performances there are some wonderfully dead-pan supporting turns, which is where the movie derives much of its quiet power in the final third. Ford is still capable of the occasional misstep, using that tired old whore of a cinematic cliché, which is the visual representation of a character’s thoughts of violent rampage. However, overall this is a downbeat, quirky and wilfully obscure little offering that might well develop a suitable cult following in years to come, particularly amongst like-minded “experimentalists”.