Romper Stomper is certainly an iconic film in Australian cinema and the figure of Russell Crowe as a skinhead neo-Nazi is an enduring image in Australian popular culture. The final scene in Romper Stomper is a key moment in Australian cinema partly because of the controversy this scene generated at the time of the film’s release and partly because of the unexpected way the film ends (1). Although the final scene resolves several of the narrative threads relating to the relationships between the three main characters, it strikes a jarring note. The film ends on a beach, a location distinct from the film’s chief locations in and around Footscray, and the lighting is naturalistic, in contrast to the lighting of the urban scenes, which were filmed through a blue filter. Davey (Daniel Pollock) holds Gabe (Jacqueline McKenzie), who is trembling in his arms. There is a shot of Davey and Gabe from the perspective of a group of Japanese tourists watching from the top of a cliff, and then there is a cut to a close-up of Davey and Gabe. A few metres away Hando (Crowe), the leader of the skinhead gang, lies dead, stabbed in the neck by Davey. Behind the Japanese tourists is the trio’s get-away car, in flames. This ending seems to privilege the love story between Davey and Gabe in contrast to the beginning of the film, which focused on the more compelling group mentality of the gang. However, what makes this scene disconcerting is that it brings to the fore the ideological ambiguity of Romper Stomper and emphasises issues of violence and voyeurism implicit in the film.
The appearance of the Japanese tourists signals that contemporary Australian society and its race and class relations are far more complex than the skinheads’ simple-minded outlook. It is also useful to interpret the presence of the Japanese tourists as calling attention to the act of looking. Throughout Romper Stomper, the audience is drawn into the visceral thrill of the violence through frenetic editing, fast-paced music and proximity of the camera to the figures on screen. This is contrasted with moments of calm when the characters are filmed with longer shots and the camera is relatively still, creating a more contemplative mode of spectatorship where the audience can observe the subtleties of the characters’ interactions and the details of their surroundings. The presence of the Japanese tourists looking down on the characters from the cliff confronts the audience with their own voyeuristic and touristic gaze throughout the film and is designed to unsettle the spectator.
In addition, this scene is unsettling because it does not address the issues that act as a catalyst for the action in the first act of the film – violence motivated by racism, changing urban demographics and the attraction of groups based on extremist ideology. The first part of the film seeks to create a sense of authenticity by detailing various aspects of the lives of the skinhead gang; where they live, what they wear, the music they listen to, and so forth. After the scenes depicting the fight with the Vietnamese men and the subsequent flight of the skinheads (sequences that are suggestive of Hong Kong action cinema), Romper Stomper is rooted in narrative and genre conventions and allusions to other films, rather than seeking to represent the skinheads authentically. This second part of the film deals with the disintegration of the gang, brought about by their desire to get revenge on the Vietnamese. The final scene strongly alludes to the ending of Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955); instead of a beach house consumed by nuclear explosions, there is a burning car, and instead of turning back and watching what is possibly the beginning of a nuclear apocalypse, Davey and Gabe gaze back towards a group of Japanese tourists (2). By refusing to explicate or take a clear position on many of the issues raised earlier in the film, the second part of Romper Stomper confounds and frustrates the audience’s expectations. While Hando’s violent death clearly conveys the message that the skinheads’ violence and warped worldview can only lead to self-destruction, the final shot of Davey and Gabe is far more uncertain in its implications.
- The turning away from issues raised in the film, such as violence, gangs, misogyny and racism, to focus on male friendship, loyalty and heterosexual love in the film’s conclusion has led many commentators to argue that Romper Stomper did not adequately critique the violence and racism it depicted (for example, Christos Tsiolkas, “Dad and Dave Go Skinhead: Romper Stomper and the art of non-political cinema”, Arena Magazine, no. 3, February/March, 1993, pp. 46-48, and Chris Berry, “More Bangs for Bucks: Male Sexuality and Violence in Australian Film”, Artlink Magazine, vol. 13, no. 1, 1993). Others argued that this was a sophisticated strategy designed to implicate the audience as subtext, not pretext, through a play of audience identification with the characters and the extreme positions the viewer occupies as a result (see Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema, Routledge, London, 1996, pp. 137-140).
- Although Geoffrey Wright does not mention Kiss Me Deadly in the director’s commentary on the DVD, he does say that the characters ending up on the beach is like “running from a burning house”. Surely this comment is a nod towards the influence of Aldrich’s film on this scene (Geoffrey Wright, Director’s Commentary, Romper Stomper DVD [Region 4], Roadshow Entertainment, 2003).