Dead Heart

Dead Heart (1996 Australia 106 mins)

Prod Co: Dead Heart Productions Prod: Bryan Brown, Helen Watts Dir, Scr: Nick Parsons Phot: James Bartle Ed: Henry Dangar Prod Des: Brian Edomonds Mus: Stephen Rae

Cast: Bryan Brown, Ernie Dingo, Angie Milliken, Gnarnayarrahe Waitairie, Aaron Pedersen, John Jarratt, Anne Tenney, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, David Gulpilil

Director Nick Parsons’ Dead Heart contains all the ingredients for an epic modern Western. Although set in the Australian Outback and shot at Jay Creek in the Northern Territory, it draws frequently from the American prototype. The film unfolds at a patriarchal settlement in Australia’s “frontier”. It features an anti-heroic sheriff, Ray Larkin (played by Bryan Brown, who also co-produced the film), whose excessive drinking, evangelical fervour, contradictory relationship with the indigenous population, and anti-establishment stance drives the narrative. It abounds with themes of law, justice, morality and crime. Full of violence, vigilantism, shootouts and panoramic shots of the exquisitely unforgiving Australian terrain, the film should not, however, be restricted to such a reductionist interpretation. Dead Heart is a uniquely Australian Western that transcends traditional forms and is itself a meditation on the meaning of legal, cultural, political and aesthetic boundaries.

Although Parsons has insisted that he wanted the film to be regarded as a Western, critics have argued that discussions of Dead Heart’s genre miss the mark. For instance, Shane Crilly wrote, “Given the problematic nature of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in this country, it is hard to see how the obvious and conscious deployment of genre in Dead Heart can give rise to any meaningful insight into these relations” (1). Brown, in a DVD extra, slated the film as “very us… a very Australian story; and it isn’t waffly but clear and strong”. His comment points to a broader context for claiming the film’s value than genre.

In many American Westerns, injustice triggers racism, and hatred erupts when whites and non-whites cannot understand each other’s traditions. Often, each are treated as strangers threatening the other’s prosperity, and this strangeness undermines the promise of peaceful co-existence. Fate brings these opposites together, a clash occurs, and racism fuels the violence. Most conventional Westerns are told from the whites’ point-of-view, and when non-whites fail to conform, trouble surfaces. However, Dead Heart works in reverse: racial tensions ignite injustice and manifest the latent racism bubbling underneath decades of colonialist conciliation. The problem in Dead Heart is that Ray and his white associates leading the settlement at Wala Wala are too familiar with native customs, culture, and traditions. Since Dead Heart is narrated from the point of view of Poppy (Gnarnayarrahe Waitairie), an elderly native and community leader, the formula is subverted: when whites fail to conform with Aboriginal law, chaos ensues. Dead Heart subverts the trappings of the traditional Western to weave a compelling tale about communities, law, postcolonialism and justice.

The film’s point-of-view is crucial in understanding these subversions. Although Poppy narrates the tale, Ray’s “story” steals our attention. He is the film’s protagonist, but his behaviour is interpreted through Poppy’s eyes. Everything Ray does is contaminated by an Aboriginal bias, similar to how natives have been infiltrated by white culture. Notwithstanding flashes of empathy, fairness and leniency, Ray and his story consume Aboriginal history the same way colonialists have stolen natives’ culture and heritage. The film’s approach to point-of-view resembles the colonial enterprise itself, and the film’s treatment of intercultural communication in a postcolonialist setting is one of its most endearing features.

Les (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), the settlement’s English teacher, believes he is “making a difference”, and as with many efforts at colonisation, the first and arguably most nefarious place to erase indigenous history and culture is through language and education. Les believes his teaching is producing results, but we see contradictory evidence: the children fool around in class, write profanity in their notebooks, and skip school whenever they please. The children are not committed to learning “English” and when Aboriginal ceremonies interrupt instruction and the indigenous community cancels classes, Les questions his involvement in this colonising enterprise. Ironically, the place where boys become men is not the civilised locale of a classroom, but instead, the “uncivilised” space where Tony (Aaron Pedersen) and Les’ wife, Kate (Angie Milliken), make love. This sacred location and its geography define the Aboriginal community, and as the adultery unfolds, the film uses frequent crosscuts to depict two cultures that are intimately intertwined but incapable of becoming one. The scene reminds us of the impossibility of the whole enterprise: no culture can effectively impose its beliefs or laws upon another.

Kate is the embodiment of the corruption and paradoxes inherent in this enterprise. She supports it and helped build the settlement but serves as its antithesis and antagonist, and her sexuality is linked to the settlement’s future: as her relationship with Tony climaxes, hope fades for the settlement. She senses this connection but cannot severe it because, as the catalyst for the settlement’s disintegration, lust is overwhelming. However, lust in the context is not limited to sex: Les’ lust for transforming his students and Ray’s lust for enforcing white man’s law are equally damaging, but Kate and Tony’s lust frames the action.

Kate’s attraction to Tony is inspired not by love but by a lustful and selfish fascination with his exotic rebellion. In the cave, she is seduced by Tony’s critical remarks about the “white man”, which by default are also an indictment of her husband, and when Tony suddenly disappears after spreading sand on her naked body to protect her, she chases him into the sacred location’s depths. The forbidden, the unknown, the uninhibited beauty and power of the location, as well as rebellion, ignite their passion. Here Kate, like Tony, despises the settlement, and their lovemaking represents a symbolic rejection of the “white man” and his “laws”. Because Tony is an Aboriginal, he articulates Kate’s feelings genuinely, and more narcissistically, her attraction to him reflects a love of herself.

However, her attitude shifts dramatically when she awkwardly explains her adultery to Les: she claims it was based on knowledge Tony possessed and the fear the sacred place conjured. Suddenly objectifying Tony and distancing him, she launches into a venomous, racist tirade. She hates “blacks” and spews racial epithets to describe them. At this point, her veneer is ruined, as is the settlement’s: nobody is genuinely happy and marriages are falling apart (tensions between another white couple are equally palpable), including the “colonial marriage” between native and non-native. The illusion that colonialism unites and carries any good is revealed as hypocrisy.

Parsons portrays television, a crowning achievement of Western culture, as both a complement and counterpoint to the colonialist agenda. The journalists report about Aboriginal customs and traditions, but their reports are rendered sterile and intrusive through the medium itself. The journalists neuter the essential qualities of the Aboriginals’ plight, and notwithstanding their humanitarian intentions, simplify their tribulations by packaging them into trite stereotypes. The reporters’ presence in the movie challenges the colonialist enterprise, but their intentions, too, are diverted by the all-consuming tools of Western civilisation: in this instance, electronic media.

More provocative than political, Dead Heart is based on murky binaries: political oppositions exist, but the characters occupying those poles are good and bad, white and black, native and non-native, ethical and unethical, making political affiliations difficult and futile. Although not apolitical, Dead Heart forces viewers to question the role of politics in inter-racial discourse. The film indicts European and Western political impulses, particularly the urge to colonise third-world peoples through democracy and capitalism. This indictment is evident throughout the film, particularly when Aboriginals steal Ray’s police vehicle and drive into the Outback: the prisoners are literally running the asylum empowered by the tools used to subjugate them. The film also questions liberal beliefs about diversity. Both Poppy and Ray declare that there is no “middle road” where the two cultures collide: both endorse an almost fascist stance because they reject compromise and diversity. The film suggests no political ideology can solve indigenous and non-indigenous relations in Australia; people, not politics, must resolve them. And people are profoundly complex.

David, the settlement’s pastor, portrays this complexity well: spiritually and morally responsible for everybody, he is politically and racially connected to nobody. His inability to mediate the mounting tension between Ray and the Aborigines renders him impotent, so he turns inward, journeying through the desert like Ray (and Jesus) to find his identity. David states he is just a “fellow”, not white or black, and when lost in the wilderness, a racially ambiguous spirit guides him. The film forces us to question our political, racial and cultural affiliations: To what community do we belong? Is that community defined by politics? Race? Nationality? Culture? Dead Heart offers no easy answers, and Ray captures these complexities in a stunning performance.

Initially, Ray is portrayed as a lazy sheriff who only enforces laws when enforcement is needed. His early comments foreshadow not only the looming disaster, but also his role in it: he says, “The whole place is fucked”, and later, “I’m everybody’s friend”. Yes, Ray, the whole place is fucked because you’re everybody’s friend. Incapable of deciding which side of the fence he prefers, he occupies both. He admits to bending rules to allow the “tribal way” to continue, and he possesses empathy for and some appreciation of the Aborigines. However, he uses Aboriginal customs for his own convenience: he intimidates one journalist with a sadistic tale about an Aboriginal custom involving burial rites and termites. This squelches the reporters’ passion to dig deeper because Ray doesn’t want the truth; he wants the status quo, and in Dead Heart, the two are incompatible. Thus, Ray initially has it both ways, but he knows that because Wala Wala is a mess, that condition is a reflection of his work as sheriff.

Subsequently, the controversy about the death of Poppy’s son, and later Tony, open doors for Ray’s evangelical crusade. As his anger mounts, he tells a white friend he will “nail you to the cross” if the friend is not honest, and his quest is inextricably linked to Christ’s journeys in the desert. But Ray’s transformation is less a spiritual one than a legal and professional one, and to say Ray transforms into a savior-like figure is too simplistic. Interestingly, he wears the same uniform throughout the film, and that appearance is important: the film is not about a struggle between law and order, but rather, a conflict between two dramatically different types of laws. The natives cannot escape the ubiquitous power of tribal law, as the prison flashbacks reveal, and Ray cannot escape Western models of law enforcement. Thus, Ray does transform, but not into a religious figure; rather, he becomes a new type of law enforcement official: the lone-wolf detective. In popular literature and films, including most notably Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, detectives have long been associated with knightly, chivalric crusaders seeking justice along secular urban quests. Ray continues this tradition admirably, but in the frontier, as one who interrogates, gathers information and aggressively seeks criminals. At the film’s midpoint, Ray becomes his own cop, and in doing so, pro-actively stamps his ethos upon this barren landscape.

His journey is an existential one, because Ray can only become his own sheriff-detective by shedding his allegiances. When David tells him he looks like shit, Ray responds, “At least I’m not the same colour”, shedding his previous empathy and respect for Aborigines. While seemingly behind bars himself, Ray punches Billy, his deputy, who also hovers between white and non-white worlds. This act forces us to ask, “Whose side is he on?” He clashes with a supervisor who travels to Wala Wala to investigate the murder. When the supervisor says the settlement is not Ray’s “private fiefdom” because “When you throw the rule book on the shit heap, you’ll always wind up under it”, Ray’s only alternative is vigilantism. Alone in the Outback without any remnants of civilisation to assist him, Ray becomes vulnerable and weak while cleansing himself of previous alliances, both personal and ideological. Eventually, he too succumbs to Aboriginal law when he is speared while in the sacred pool. Paradoxically, as Ray’s blood intermingles with sacred tribal waters, he realises that racial harmony has no middle ground: one must perform his professional duties and pursue his moral responsibilities with conviction, regardless of race, if he is to ever make a difference.

Originally written for the screen, Parsons adapted Dead Heart into a stage play under the same name, and it was performed in Sydney and Perth in the mid-1990s. I cannot comment on the play, but the film is as powerful as they come. As it concludes, the settlement is abandoned, Ray’s friend’s map blows away (along with its arbitrary boundaries), and Poppy drives away in a van. Crilly writes, “[Dead Heart’s] narrative closure clearly suggests that the differences between Aborigines and whites are irreconcilable” (2). True, perhaps, but as Ray Larkin demonstrates, whether you die trying to reconcile those differences depends on your heart.


  1. Shane Crilly, “Reading Aboriginalities in Australian Cinema: From Jedda to Dead Heart [and a few in between]”, Australian Screen Education no. 26-7, 2001, p. 41.
  2. Crilly, p. 42.

About The Author

Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.

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