From major sporting stars caught in sexual assault scandals to the real-life horrors that have befallen Australian women from Anita Cobby to Leigh Leigh, the inherent toxicity of that casually deployed “boys will be boys” myth has far, far too often had its dark side revealed in Australian culture. While at its most optimistic, the “wild colonial boys” ethos underscores supposedly wholesome white Australian ideals like mateship, loyalty and a unified stance in defiance of corrupt authority. But we’ve seen the nightmarish flip side far too many times. In the case of Cobby and Leigh – real women denied their fundamental right to long, fruitful lives – the circumstances surrounding their deaths were brought unforgettably to life on screen in the fictionalised retellings THE BOYS (Rowan Woods, 1998) and BLACKROCK (Steve Vidler, 1997) respectively.
In response to this climate of noramlised misogyny, Australian cinema has provided a symbolic space to speak of women’s experiences in this bleak scenario, where male dominance (culminating at its most extreme with rape and murder) is somehow configured as both a bonding ritual and a marker of dominance and authority. While most recent variants of this theme can be found in Jennifer Kent’s THE NIGHTINGALEand Kodie Bedford’s dazzling short SCOUT in the Indigenous horror anthology DARK PLACE, for better or for worse – and spanning from highbrow to low – Australian film history features a veritable parade of movies where women seek to fight back against violent masculine control. From Mario Andreacchio's FAIR GAME (1986) to Steve Jodrell’s SHAME (1988) to Nathan Hill's TOMBOYS (2009), despite the tonal diversity and intended audiences of these films, the girls-fight-back motif remains an enduring response to the “boys will be boys” paradigm.
Consciously throwing a deliberate spanner in the works comes David Barker’s slick, sophisticated thriller PIMPED, co-written with key collaborator Lou Mentor and carried in large part by an extraordinary performance by Ella Scott Lynch in not one, but two central roles. As Sarah Montrose, Lynch presents a complex character who is at times intelligent, controlled, cold, vulnerable and confused. As the distinctly more vampish Rachael Montrose, Lynch’s secondary character initially appears to be the more focused, confident and determined of the two, but as the film’s action unfolds it becomes increasingly difficult to identify such tidy boundaries.
At the heart of Sarah and Rachael’s story is Lewis (Benedict Samuel), who Sarah discovers too late has selected her to be a pawn in a vicious ‘game’ played by him and his repulsively privileged housemate, Kenneth (Robin Goldsworthy). While gender politics and its relation to power reigns supreme as a thematic concern in PIMPED - indicated perhaps nowhere more clearly than its title - questions of class align almost inseparably with the brutal male-bonding rituals that are seemingly business as usual between the two men. While Kenneth is undeniably the most venal of the pair, the comparatively charming Lewis is revealed to be just as much a smug, a rich manchild as his friend, with his arrogant adolescent grasp of Nietzschean ideals of flux and chaos his go-to justification for a whole range of bad behaviours.
That is, at least, until flux and chaos begin working against him. By consciously destabilising not just the moral positions of its key players but actively undermining the film’s internal logic that dictates its portrayal of ‘reality’ itself, PIMPED is a deceptively complex film about gender, power and perception. A puzzle film so tricky that it does not at first even present as a puzzle film, PIMPED underscores that ethics are always tainted by the subjectivity of those involved, and that the game itself and the rules that govern it are as turbulent and as volatile as those who choose to play it.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a Melbourne-based film critic and author of seven books on cult, horror and exploitation film with a focus on gender politics.
To learn more about al thirty-four of the feature films in competition for the 2019 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Judges Handbook here.