One of the many disappointing aspects of Alan White’s Risk (2001) involves the internecine combination of actor and image. White’s previous feature film Erskineville Kings (1999) was far from an empty movie experience, turning a simple skeleton-in-the-closet drama of estranged siblings into a vehement screen-sweating meditation on rivalry and family faction. Apart from being a poignant story, Erskineville Kings delivered courageous acting in impressive spatial arrangements, transcending the modest theatrical origins of the script and provided a claustrophobic alternative to the crowd-pleasing histrionics of a box office jalopy like Two Hands (Gregor Jordan, 1999). From his insightful depiction of boiling-point inner suburban Sydney, White has chosen to move on to ‘big city’ politics and come up with a pair of deuces.
Risk is hung on the weariest formula of corporate movies – the corruption of the innocent. The emphasis in this three-handed character study is placed on moral degradation and insurance claim adjustments. The plot follows country boy Ben Madigan (Tom Long) into his first job with a large insurance company that sees him fall under the tutelage of wily John Kreisky (Bryan Brown) as he fast assimilates to the ins and outs of insurance scam, fraud and other deceptions of “whiplash city”. After a brief occupational initiation, told via a montage of broken-spirited ordinary folk Madigan investigates, he gets involved with a mysterious lawyer, Louise (Claudia Karvan), and is soon up to his ears in gold pennies and guilt.
With tenuous links to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), White’s flashback film evokes past corporate dramas such as the inside trading of Wall Street (Oliver Stone, 1987) and the plot twisting treachery of Swimming with Sharks (George Huang, 1994). In both these films, a wide-eyed innocent is coerced by an older father figure (in a prominent corporate position) into fraudulent manoeuvres before a doomed involvement with a femme fatale jeopardises his career. Risk avoids the sentimentalised bitterness of Huang’s movie yet embraces a similar narrative structure that sees the unlucky country bumpkin recalling his story from the luxury of a final act vantage point. As required of the corporate deceit scenario, this character succumbs to the corruption he initially abhors, nearly usurps his father figure and draws on an innate and unspecified ability to escape from any fix when required. However, unlike Swimming with Sharks (which is no diamond in the rough), the characters in Risk are devoid of histories or scum-bucket charm; the duplicity of their scams fails to register as either comedy or drama.
Part of the overall drabness in this film emerges from the unescapable funnel effect of the visuals, which are doused in a cold blue-steel tint. White’s allegorical space is a vacant sprawling composition, slanting and inclined in a rigid fixture devoid of primary colours or people. Exteriors have the feckless low-angle imagery of Readers Digest cover art, whilst a series of matte shots square each of the protagonists within the frame like melting candle wax as they recede effortlessly into the larger than life post-modern architecture. For the first part of the movie, Madigan is constrained by overhead fish-eye lenses in a barren bedroom sanctuary that limits any view of the rest of his living quarters and further restricts any elaboration on characterisation or psychological space. In this stingy movie, composed in small offices with cityscape backgrounds, dank corridors and car parks, the budget is only flaunted when the image is empty, never when it needs to be filled. In an elevator scene shot for claustrophobic suspense involving a clammy guilt-ridden Madigan flanked by two unsuspecting members of the Fraud squad, White punctures the frame like a block of Swiss cheese. His enclosed space is so open and vacuous a cricket team could fill out the empty movement of a dull camera pan. Meanwhile the transitions and cross cutting formulations are hackneyed, usually singularised by low-angle zooms arranging the actors in Swimsuit Calender poses.
Par for the course in recent Australian movie acting is stale unbending characterisation. With the clichéd styling of an MTC production or a hardened Shoppingtown pantomime troupe, the emphasis moves strictly between larrikin bravado and statuesque impenetrability. Occasionally bypassed by a tough mobile aggressor such as Sacha Horler (Praise [John Curran, 1999]) or rodent-like scene-stealer like Adam Haddrick (Four Jacks [Matthew George, 2000]), for the most part this smarmy cultural posturing has attached itself onto productions like a cancerous growth.
Risk unfortunately falls into this trap. There is little chemistry between any of the actors; Karvan and Long struggle throughout the film to discover the slightest binding grace. Long works best when mobile, and in a memorable bit of frenzied excitement wins a bet with a colleague, wheeling into close-up with a twenty dollar note gritted between his teeth like a wild-eyed child. However from then on he drops anchor; his lame brained characterisation (people only come this ignorant in movies) becomes crippled by his fencepost versatility where his sudden transformation into a white-collar grifter inspires a change of lines but not their delivery. In comparison, Karvan comes off as a poor femme fatale – White has her move like a moon-struck astronaut, all hips and arms. She is a fragile eggshell of a temptress, dishing out bland Vogue stares and vampish smiles as the camera lingers over her body like she’s Linda Fiorentino when all she can muster is Kathy Lee Gifford.
Instead of rising above this wax museum mire, Brown dives right in giving one of his laziest screen performances since his lacklustre Coghlan’s law rudiments in Cocktail (Roger Donaldson, 1988). Eyeballs ablaze, Brown’s Kreisky provides awful lines such as “you’re gone mate” with the lethargy of an overworked bouncer escorting another drunk from the pub. Occasionally in the past he has successfully pulled off cartoon mugging (Two Hands) or authoritative posturing (Dead Heart [Nick Parsons, 1996]), however despite the diversity of each movie, the result is invariably almost the same.
In Risk, the actors float between locations (or doorways) for photogenic purposes. Lost in the transitory setting of a hallway, they are glimpsed whispering and stooped like embarrassed door-to-door salesman unsure of their next address. Each locale serves to mark a lapse of time rather than a defined psychological space. In Erskineville Kings, White explored the limitations of each location with a keen eye, transforming each interior into a stylised pressure-cooker. Nevertheless Risk suffers from a glazed-over hurried diplomacy that hinders any elucidation for image or actor.
Emblematic of the sloppy correlation existing between theme and mise en scène in many mainstream Australian movies is the customary absence of subtext. Scenes are often frenetically slapped together or washed over with soft focus lighting and dapper cut and paste coverage reducing human exchanges to one-dimensional scrapbook etchings. Ben and Louise gorging on oysters at a fishbowl composed restaurant is supposed to ‘read’ as a sly seduction, while later on in rebellious mode, working away at a cluttered desk, he is oblivious to the none too subtle headline of a strategically placed newspaper which announces: “Toe the Line”.
Unfortunately Risk suffers from a peak hour hurried construction bereft of memorable images or sleight of hand. This tepid drama has limited ingredients, little inventiveness or spatial dimension. As half-baked entertainment, this white-collar con movie drenched in urban desolation and hammy convention is light years away from the stylistic unity of Praise or the intoxicating observations of Feeling Sexy (Davida Allen, 1999). The opening credits of Risk appropriately play over images of disintegrating cars and flying crash test dummies, hinting at the collision course these empty vessel characters will inevitably take. The rest of the movie plays out like bumper cars at a small town carnival: plenty of incessant noise with very little impact.