“My soul’s pretty damaged at the moment”
I never really start reviews with a quote and I am not going to make it a regular thing. However looking back over my notes for Hail (2011), the above line of dialogue from the film seems an apt way to start. Hopefully I can communicate why. Barely seen upon its release, Australian film Hail is an uncompromising drama completely grounded in real life. A real life suburbia the type of which is rarely featured onscreen.
The film begins with a close-up of a painting depicting demons and gods at war. It is a fitting starting point because the film is in many ways an examination of the waging of very individual wars, both internal and external. The film focuses on Dan, who has just been released from prison. There is hope, from him and those around him, that he will be able to get his life back on track. But it is not a fake, glib hope. It is a realistic one. The hope to scrounge enough in a legal manner to get by and maybe spoil the woman you love with a few drinks at the local club every so often. Dan knows that people like him cannot really hope to rise much higher than that in contemporary Australian society. Having said all that, those are goals that you really hope and desire that Dan can achieve, to get his life back on track. The narrative is essentially linear, though not exactly what you would call straightforward. Especially early on, what takes place is more a succession of events and moments – sex, the tender moments afterward, having a drink, getting a job, smoking dope – before things gradually crystallise into a stronger narrative core.
I should warn you that Hail is an exceptionally difficult watch. There are shocking acts of violence. Some are shocking because they explode out of nowhere, others because of the truly heinous nature of what is being committed. Part of the reason behind that is the style in which it is shot. Which is actually a hard style to describe. In many ways, the grainy look and realism is similar to the style that made Snowtown (2011) such an ordeal. But having said that, many aspects of the film are actually shot in a really hyper-artistic, borderline avant-garde manner with images passing by and going in and out of focus. These sequences at times feel like a beautiful relief from the oppressing viewing of the film. Dan never shies away from his past. But as a man who is only just keeping it together, one crushing event brings him totally undone. And it is from this point that the clash of styles I have just mentioned is used to really quite devastating, disorientating effect. The performances are very naturalistic in their execution, the characters are predominately played by non-professionals and the events onscreen reflect in some ways those that these men and women have experienced in their real lives. Daniel P. Jones who plays Dan has a very intense presence onscreen that he channels into moments of both endearment and rage. Indeed, in a good way, he delivers more of a ‘presence’ rather than a traditional performance I think.
Hail is a searing film. A fantastic one, that I don’t think I ever want to see again. It shows one man’s journey through punishment, hope, retribution, all of it encased in layers of lost love and guilt. Watching Dan the character and Daniel P. Jones the actor approach his life, so “frightened of the unknown” is highly original, and highly effecting cinema.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny