Laurie McInnes’s 1993 film Broken Highway is Australian Gothic at its simultaneously most brutal and beautiful; it is a Nick Cave song come to life. The opening few moments reference a character enigmatically named Dead Man, and watching Broken Highway today it is almost impossible to not at first interpret this as a reference to the Jim Jarmusch film of the same name, so closely the two overlap in style, tone and theme. This theory holds water until you look at a calendar: McInnes’s film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival almost exactly two years before Jarmusch’s would debut at the same festival.
1993 was a big year for Australian cinema at Cannes, a then-unprecedented five movies from the country making the official selection.1 But the festival plays a significant role in McInnes’s career specifically: in 1987, her short film Palisade had already won the Palme d’Or for Best Short Film. Losing out on the 1993 feature film Palme to Jane Campion’s The Piano, it was in this context that Broken Highway was – to put mildly – highly anticipated: on its release in Australia, McInnes was in one instance declared as nothing short of “one of Australia’s most innovative filmmakers”.2
McInnes’s professional background was behind the camera until her directorial debut with Palisades: she was cinematographer on Susan Lambert’s extraordinary 1984 lesbian feminist scifi heist film On Guard, a movie that resulted from the Women’s Film Fund with an (almost) all-woman cast and crew. McInnes would work in a range of capacities in camera departments on films ranging from the beatified Australian animal abuse classic Phar Lap (1983) and the nuclear-panic actioner The Chain Reaction (Ian Barry, 1980) before directing her two features, Broken Highway and Dogwatch in 1999. After this, she seems to have moved back behind the camera and as a director we’ve heard little from her since.
It would be too easy to speculate that McInnes’s shift away from directorial duties to back behind the camera was the result of the oft-cited omnipresent misogyny facing women directors both in Australia and overseas. But in 1993, McInnes noted that while she never had any real problems at that stage with discrimination as a woman director – “you basically ignore it and ultimately the difficulty of being a female director is not there”3 – her experience as a camera assistant was very different. At that time in her career, she said, “there was only one other female clapper-loader in Australia and it was the only time I ever felt bullshitted to”.4
It is perhaps only coincidental, but the desire to escape an oppressive environment lies precisely at the heart of Broken Highway. The film follows Angel (Aden Young) who, as his name suggests, is a beautiful, innocent young sailor on board a merchant ship approaching Australia. He’s on a winning streak at cards against crude, vicious Tatts (David Field), and on board the boat he agrees to go on a mission to the Queensland town of Honeyfield to deliver a talisman on behalf of his dying friend and gambling guru, Max (Dennis Miller). Despite Max’s idyllic description and the lush utopia, the very name “Honeyfield” evokes what Angel discovers in contrast is a grim, decrepit swamp town, a struggling fishing port where its remaining inhabitants (including Australian screen stalwarts Bill Hunter and Norman Kaye) are effectively demented by isolation, hate and desperation. In contrast, Claudia Karvan’s Catherine finds herself trapped in a dead-end town with no means of escape until Angel comes to town.
The film’s settings and local cast grant Broken Highway a distinct aspect of local colour, one imbued with the director’s personal experiences. Immigrating to Australia from Liverpool at the age of four, McInnes grew up in the region near Moreton Bay in Queensland where Broken Highway was filmed. However, McInnes’s directorial approach hinders any straightforward categorisation of the film as a typical example of ‘Australian cinema’. Shot on black and white film stock and indebted to the tropes of film noir,5 Broken Highway is stylistically more reminiscent of the new wave cinema movements of Europe and America than those national cinema ‘classics’ that emerged within Australia during the 1990s: it is the very antithesis of films like Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992), Muriel’s Wedding (P.J. Hogan, 1994) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) as can be imagined. This fusion of sensibilities was a conscious one, and can be attributed to McInnes’s particular vision for the film where she sought “to get that energy and plot-driven idea, together with the idea-driven film-making of the Europeans”.6
The result is a dark and densely atmospheric cinematic work that ruminates on deeper themes of the double through the characters’ personal relationships, shared histories and the omnipresent threat of sexual violence, death and decay that underscore the narrative. How and why Laurie McInnes’s Broken Highway in particular has until now almost been completely eradicated from Australian film history is worth considering within this context, a film that – from a 2017 perspective at least – feels more original and alive than many of the so-called ‘Australian film classics’ from the same period that demonstrate little beyond the endurance and longevity of the unholy triumvirate of critics, distributors and funding bodies and their fondness for a specific set of national cinema clichés.
If Broken Highway’s virtual eradication from Australian film history is to be understood at least in part through the film’s refusal to conform to these established codes of genre or national cinema, then the film’s importance and the tragedy of its disappearance must similarly be considered. Broken Highway is both of its time and of the now. It is a movie that manages to be both decidedly Australian in character and yet, like its central character, other-worldly. Both Angel and the film itself are, in short, adrift in time and place.
Doubles, Dancing and the Prison of Identity
The casting of Aden Young in the lead role reflects the film’s complex transnational quality. Young was born in Canada and raised in Australia from around the age of 10, and as a consequence both he and the character of Angel appear to exist between two worlds. Young was at this stage of his career riding the wave of success of his starring turn in his film debut, Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe (1991), beginning a sturdy career that for contemporary audiences make him most recognisable for roles in television series such as Rectify (2014-2016) and The Code (2014-2016). Young plays the role of Angel’s fish-out-of-water to perfection in Broken Highway, in large part due to the palpable on-screen energy between him and co-star Claudia Karvan. Young, Karvan, Kaye and Field would all unite again three years later in Paul Cox’s 1994 film Exile, the same year Young and Karvan took their interpersonal electricity off-screen and began a relationship.7 In Broken Highway, Karvan – now, like Young, a more familiar face on television than the cinema screen – puts in one of her strongest performances, a big call in terms of a career that has seen her work with filmmakers including Phillip Noyce, Nadia Tass, Pauline Chan, Bob Ellis, the Spierig Brothers, and Cox himself three times (on Exile, 1993’s Touch Me and 1996’s Lust and Revenge).
But if Broken Highway performance-wise belongs to anyone, it’s Bill Hunter. McInnes not simply rejects but actively subverts the caricature of the ‘lovable larrikin’ of Hunter’s star persona to render his distinct style of knockabout, ocker Australian masculinity as something self-destructive, cruel and fundamentally impotent. As McInnes noted in the movie’s promotional material,8 “the film is about the great capacity of people to love, yet their tragic inability to make it happen. How desire can grow in its place and lead to destruction”. While this is true of many of the Broken Highway’s characters, it seems somehow at its most tragic and brutal in the figure of Hunter’s Wilson.
Wilson might serve as the film’s tragic centrepiece, but his melancholic failures are mirrored in the film’s other characters. This is particularly so of Tatts, played by David Field – an actor perhaps best known for his break-out role in John Hillcoat’s Ghosts…Of the Civil Dead (1988) whose pursuit of Angel puts him on a path to self-destruction, a fate that also continues to haunt Wilson. The mirroring of characters and the recurrence of past events that occur throughout the narrative of Broken Highway highlight the way McInnes employs doubling and repetition in order to structure the film’s exploration of desire and tragedy. Angel himself from this perspective both participates in yet simultaneously collapses and exposes the dysfunctional tensions between these kinds of binaries, McInnes herself noting that “the Angel character is male and female; he’s a cipher for…bewilderment”.9
This motif of the double is established from the outset of Broken Highway during a game of poker that culminates in an angry face-off between Angel and Tatts, where the latter is bested by a ‘pair of Twos’. Though subtle, this initial reference to doubling in the cards is significant. The disputed winning hand will bind these two characters to a violent fate through Tatts’ subsequent pursuit of Angel, and sets in motion a procession of doubles each underscored by desire, tragedy and the inescapable repetition of past failures. That Tatts serves as a symbolic double to the tragic figure of Wilson is not incidental; his feud with Angel recalls Wilson’s past rivalry with Max over the affections of the now deceased Pauline. Angel’s arrival in Honeyfield consolidates this complex web of doubling and desire when, as Max’s surrogate, he shows a romantic interest in Catherine. To make the doubling explicit, Karvan plays both Catherine and Pauline, and the similarity to Pauline is what renders the younger woman the target of Wilson’s bitter jealousy. Karvan’s doubling as both Pauline and Catherine is particularly important here given the way these characters’ identities collapse distinctions between both self and other and between the past and present. Catherine makes Pauline’s wardrobe her own, disturbing Wilson who chastises her for “wearing a dead woman’s clothes”. As Pauline and Catherine’s identities become increasingly blurred, Wilson’s affections shift towards the younger woman.
But McInnes is less interested in simple character rivalries than she is in exploring the collapse of identities and of time, as we witness the way the past continues to exert a profound influence over the characters in the present. Angel and Tatts will gradually come to resemble shadow versions of the other, their identities increasingly fused through costuming and physical markings. In a later scene, Tatts changes into a cowboy shirt reminiscent of Angel’s outfit, replete with embroidered poker cards (echoing back – doubling, if you will – the opening). In the process, he reveals two large wing-shaped tattoos across his back, aligning him even more closely with Angel via name alone. The collapse of identity reproduces the dissolution of the past within the present.
This motif of the double finds its most apparent expression through the recurring references to dancing that occur throughout Broken Highway. Coded with violent homoerotic desire, the dynamic between Angel and Tatts is particularly interesting in this regard. Consider, for instance, this exchange just before they reach the shore:
Angel: You drinking, Tatts?
Tatts: What’s it to you?
Angel: You dancing?
Angel: I’ll be putting on my Cowboy boots to save you a dance.
Tatts: You find a nice shirt to wear Angel, cos we gonna be dancing.
This link between repressed violence, sexual desire and dancing recurs throughout the film, seen later in a number of its key moments such as the sexual assault of the woman in Max’s old room and the sequence where Angel and Catherine dance (marked as it is by the presence of death, articulated by Wilson’s reference to “a dead woman’s clothes”). In Broken Highway, the act of dancing denotes a confrontation of the double, bringing the past and present together into close proximity where love might flourish, but just as present is the drive towards self-examination and self-destruction, forced into an uncomfortable recognition.
The conscious ambivalence to the traditionally ‘romantic’ act of dancing therefore provides a way for McInnes to expand the doubling motif, bringing into literal physical conflict the film’s different moral forces. They come not only from across different spaces, but move back and forward through time, and in Broken Highway history itself is therefore ultimately revealed as a near-inescapable cycle whose only means of closure is death or slow decay. In one of the film’s most tonally bleak moments, Wilson describes to Angel how a seemingly suicidal Max had walked into the path of cars purposelessly circling around an abandoned race track. Maintaining McInnes’s fascination with doubling, Wilson later re-enacts the same gesture after his failed attempt at leaving Honeyfield: he circles the edges of the highway exit in his tow-truck, reversing, stalling, lurching forwards and backwards in an awkward mechanical manoeuvre – a dance in itself – that inevitably leads him back into town, carrying with him Tatts. The characters of Broken Highway remain trapped in the past, bound to repeat the mistakes of their spectral opposites, circling endlessly in their search for an escape that, in the case of at least two characters, can only end in death or the destruction of self.
In Broken Highway, the only way out is to shatter the historically-embedded tendency towards doubling that haunts its protagonists. It is not only love that saves Angel, but also the shedding of the very signifiers of his proscribed personality traits: cutting his hair, and later (even more importantly) being stripped of almost all of his clothes in the final confrontation with Tatts. The shedding of this fabric ‘skin’ (again echoing Wilson’s distaste of Catherine wearing “a dead woman’s clothes”) effectively liberates Angel from the doomed cycle of the double: the highway is broken, and he is untethered from the past simply by letting go of the symbolic, material forces that bind him to it.
The way that McInnes’s film renders this broader materiality literally grants the film its central aesthetic and thematic potency. McInnes storyboarded every shot in the film, and the intense atmosphere created through her film style as much as narrative was no accident. For starters, she consciously chose black and white as “a way of bypassing the real world in order to tell the story without the usual inhibitions”.10 Director of Photography Steve Mason also underscored this fundamental connection between the film aesthetically and thematically, noting that “Broken Highway is an interior film…about somebody’s heart, so we had to make landscapes prominent in the film…and give it the starkness that’s fundamentally the Australian landscape”.11
There is, in McInnes’s own words, “a malevolent feel to the film”,12 and it is this more than anything else that provides the film on every level with its haunted, haunting quality. The consequence of its ceaseless repetitions of past, present and the doubling of characters renders the world of Broken Highway nothing less than a kind of purgatory: here, life and industry are marked by an omnipresent sense of decay. These are spaces (and histories) riddled both figuratively and often literally with rust, dust, grease, and an omnipresent, almost ambient aspect of disease. In Broken Highway, nothing can survive.
The Road Not Taken
Although narratively the relationship between Angel and Catherine provides a glimpse of hope that lies beyond the spiritual quagmire of Broken Highway’s toxic locales, the instinct towards annihilation that permeates the film seemed to be an element that few critics were immune to. An unnamed critic in The Sydney Morning Herald reprimanded McInnes for her vision – although again admiring her technical craft – suggesting that if she “stops striving to make a masterpiece, her next film might stand a chance of being better than just good-looking”,13 while Prue Rushton at women’s magazine Cleo simply bemoaned the fact that Broken Highway was “lacking in sufficient plot”.14
To his credit, Dougal McDonald at The Canberra Times gave it four out of five stars, but seemed almost bewildered as to why: “Broken Highway is a work very much calling for individual responses, unlike more populist work to which a full house will respond as one”. He issues these four stars more as a warning than an uncomplicated declaration of support, clarifying that “it is a film that you will indeed carry with you out of the cinema. Whether it has the emotional pheromones to attract you in there in the first place is another question”.15
Watching Broken Highway almost 25 years since its original release, Shelley Kay’s review at Rolling Stone from September 1993 seems to come the closest to capturing precisely what it was – and still is – that makes the film so simultaneously fascinating and difficult: “Broken Highway is highly stylised and has the feel of an epic story from which all the plot details have been edited out, so the film ends up like an eerie nightmare that just won’t stop”. But even Kay had complaints: for her, Young and Karvan were simply too pretty for their environment, lacking character and “conforming to a traditional casting formula…sabotag[ing] her own aesthetic alibi”.16
If critics struggled to properly get a grip on Broken Highway at the time, Andrew Urban had suspicions even then as to why that might be the case: “Broken Highway has a haunting sadness, a melancholy rare in Australian film-making, and a satisfying dramatic complexity. It is neither naturalistic in the normal sense, nor surreal”.17 There is no denying the early 1990s were a fertile period for Australian filmmaking, but at the end of the day audiences wanted drag queens not despair, ABBA not ennui. Broken Highway was far from the giddy carnivals we were then delighting in: the colour literally drained out of it, it is a film marked by a conscious, deliberate lifelessness at a moment when Australian audiences were otherwise enthralled by a specific home-grown brand of bouncy exuberance. Even Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright, 1992) – hardly a perky film by any definition – was still marked by an overwhelming kinetic forcefulness, an energy that Broken Highway also consciously rejected.
It is therefore with some bitter irony that the film McInnes herself described as being “about the loss or inability to love”18 has been forgotten so completely in the typical narrative of what Australian film history ‘is’. If ever a film was ripe for reappraisal, it is this one, a film whose sense of doomed urgency seems only too familiar to Australian audiences fatigued by an ideologically bankrupt political elite, the ongoing rise of the extremist right and their callous dismantling of systems of public welfare, health, housing and the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers and refugees. Against this backdrop of social and cultural decay Broken Highway is about finding light, even if just a glimmer, in the dark. “It could be taking place anywhere, any time” McInnes said in 1993. “What mattered was the humanity of the characters, they are all asking, trying to define what it is to be human, what it is to have desire, and the hope of love.”19
The research for this article was undertaken as part of an Australian Film Institute Research Centre Fellowship.
- Vicky Roach, “Claudia’s Class Act”, The Daily Mirror, 24 April 1993, p. 26 ↩
- “Cannes Film Tops the Bill”, Weekend Bulletin (Gold Coast), 5 March 1993, p. 66 ↩
- Lani Hannah, “Broken Highway: Director Laurie McInnes Interviewed”, Cinema Papers #93, May 1993, p. 17. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- McInnes explicitly identified parallels between Broken Highway and film noir. See: Andrew Urban, “Riders of the Post New Wave”, The Bulletin, 25 May 1993, p. 86. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- “The Heart-Throb Kids”, The Age, 20 February 1994, p. 77 ↩
- Broken Highway press kit. ↩
- Lani Hannah, p. 17. ↩
- Lani Hannah, p. 15. ↩
- Rachel Power, “Journey Into the Heart of a Barren Land”, The Canberra Times, 13 April 1994, p. 4. ↩
- Lani Hannah, p. 15. ↩
- “Sunk By Symbols”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February 1994, p. 22. ↩
- Prue Rushton, “And then there’s…”, Cleo Magazine, March 1994, p. 29. ↩
- Dougal Macdonald, “Complex Characters Who Fail to Cope”, The Canberra Times, 16 April 1994, p. C6. ↩
- Shelley Kay, “Broken Highway”, Rolling Stone, September 1993, p. 95-6. ↩
- Andrew Urban, p. 86. ↩
- Lani Hannah, p. 17. ↩
- Broken Highway press kit ↩