Imagine you’ve got tinnitus, a sickness of the ear that causes a constant ringing sound in your head. Imagine you’re a cop. Imagine you try and get some time off work, but no such luck. Imagine you’re confined to a police caravan over Christmas. Imagine there’s recently been a ghastly unsolved crime in the area. Imagine your presence in the caravan somehow draws the perpetrator to the surface. Imagine your tinnitus is getting worse. Now imagine you hear a gun shot, and it sounds like a nuclear bomb detonated right in your cochlear. Welcome to Noise.
It’s an appropriate title for writer/director Matt Seville’s debut feature film, because while the hearing of protagonist Constable Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell) might be shot, ours, inside the cinema, has rarely been better.
Collaborating with sound designer Emma Bortignon and composer Bryony Marks, Saville whips up one hell of a soundscape: a brooding and constantly shifting score dances beneath an accentuated series of aural pinpoints, niggling the senses like the first rising vibes of a nightmare hallucinogen.
Slurping coffee, smoking cigarettes, clicking jaws, unanswered telephones - the prosaic effects of day-to-day life become tools for atmosphere and Leone-esque bursts of sensory showmanship, but Saville is careful not to milk it to the point of novelty. Noise builds a disquieting sense of realism and finds in its protagonist’s ailment a justification to toy with the surfaces of sound. The acts of hearing and listening are central to the film’s premise, and not necessarily in literal terms.
We begin with glimpses of a tragedy that would have Connex executives sweating bowling balls and reaching for the Vicodin. A horrible, bloody mass murder leaves a sole survivor, Lavinia (Maia Thomas), and a perpetrator detectives are searching for. McGahan is stationed at a police surveillance caravan and has a cycle of encounters with members of the community who grapple with the tragedy in one way or another.
The story builds a crosshatch of characters and writhes between their relationships with each other and the police, exposing angst and insecurities, kindness and empathy, violence and malevolence in the local residents. The film incidentally touches on familiar characters (the grudging cop, the killer on the prowl, the unsympathetic superior) but it is deeply tuned to personalities and refuses to lean on stereotypes. “In this world,” says Saville, in his Director’s Statement to the media, “heroes do casual labour on building sites and in fast food restaurants. So do the villains.”
“The acts of hearing and
listening are central to
the film’s premise”
listening are central to
the film’s premise”
The cast, many of whom appear in a feature for the first time, fill out the script’s gray areas with juggernaut performances. Maia Thomas (watch this face) ripples with highly strung emotion: her character has witnessed a ghastly crime, and we believe it. The cast is small and many of them play small characters, but even the bit parts resonate: Lucky Phil (Simon Laherty), a local with a mental impairment and a crotchet for photographing his dog in funny outfits, is indicative of the story’s complex consideration of its people.
Brendan Cowell, a Love My Way regular, is the glue that binds the cast together. McGahan is a grudging, almost anti-hero; not happy with his job, wrestling with this affliction, tussling with his girlfriend; he isn’t occupied by notions of heroism and nor is bound by a sense of duty. McGahan struggles to deal with the noises inside his head while all around him hoof prints of tragedy lead to conflict and unresolved tensions, and his character transforms gradually yet fundamentally. Exposing the audience to the pangs of his illness pries the character open just that little bit more, and Cowell hangs it all together neatly.
So does Saville, whose consummation of production elements will leave most film directors wet around the lips. The soundtrack almost literally speaks for itself, and the visual surfaces of Noise are also scintillating. Cinematographer Laszlo Baranyai, whose roots are in Eastern European filmmaking, coats the film in a midnight ambience of blues, grays, odd colour mixtures and monochromatic tones. The effect is a surface that feels like it’s ever-expanding, a breathing, pulsating energy that haunts and illuminates. Even though almost half of the film is situated inside the police caravan, Noise was shot on 35mm in glorious widescreen, every inch of the frame treated as part of an evolving landscape.
Noise is so many things at once: a quietly enlightening character piece, a social study of conscience and decency, a catch-the-killer police story. It finds new angles and directions as it rolls along, never simplifying for the dumb-dumbs in the audience and constantly enlightening its complications and grey areas with fresh perspectives as it progresses. Interpret the film as an allegory or a metaphor, or just sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a sublimely harrowing cop movie and a powerful psychological thriller that refuses to succumb to conventional definitions. Don’t miss it.