Outlaws in the Outback

This Australian answer to Bonnie and Clyde, inelegantly titled Kiss or Kill, is the kind of film that carries you along even as you know exactly where it's headed. And where it's headed, of course, is trouble -- trouble for all involved.

Two sweet and tender hooligans, Nikki and Al, pay the rent by rolling wealthy businessmen that the saucy Nikki picks up in bars. A few sleeping capsules in the mark's drink, and the two are flying down the road in their beat-up sedan with a wallet full of cash. But something goes wrong when their latest victim dies right after foreplay. The pair find a cryptic videotape, pocket it, and head, nervous and desperate, toward Perth at high speed.

As the cops tail them, the couple lands in trouble everywhere they go. Nikki keeps slipping off for unexplained bouts of sleepwalking, and someone ends up dead almost everywhere they stop. To make matters worse, the couple is also being chased by balding football hero Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe) -- so beloved that the cops who interview him plead for his autograph. It's him in the videotape, it turns out, with most of his clothes off, climbing into bed with a young boy -- hence his concern.

Tense, funny and smartly shot, Kiss or Kill is also a reminder that a movie can be edgy and dangerous without being gory or gratuitously violent. It gives the film, for all its hipness and Tarantino-inspired cheekiness, a kind of restrained, Old World quaintness. The only really nasty shot comes near the end, after the film's fiery climax.

The irony is that this film, so clearly modeled on Bonnie and Clyde, follows the 1967 film's dramatic and comic possibilities -- but not its love of spilled blood and vigorously destroyed property. Thirty years after Bonnie and Clyde opened the floodgates of cinematic violence, here's a movie that doesn't need machine guns, grenades or disfigured bodies to show us that these kids are bad.

Directed, written and produced by Bill Bennett (known for 1986's Cannes hit Backlash), the film is marked by a distinct visual style, including cinematography that's full of weird, sudden closeups alternated with long shots of desolate Australian spaces. The bold composition of browns, greens and blues, the startling clarity of Australian light, and the impossible depths of Australia's blue skies give some of the sequences the feel of an Edward Hopper painting.

But what really makes the film go is its two leads, both veterans of last year's Love and Other Catastrophes. Al and Nikki met as juvenile delinquents in a halfway house, and it's easy to see what brought them together.

He's a sensitive, supportive guy who'd make the perfect boyfriend if not for his short fuse and tendency to snap under pressure, James Woodsstyle. His goal are simple -- he wants to head for Bali or the Philippines, hang out on the beach and surf. She's dangerously playful -- gets a kick out of the little-kid irresponsibility of driving fast across the desert with her boyfriend, stealing cars and leaving the world of authority behind. She's got major family problems that lurk behind her and occasionally flash like sudden fire back into her life. As the kindly jeweler (Barry Otto) they encounter puts it, with the kind of understatement typical to the film, "You two kids don't play by the rules."

Al and Nikki's relationship -- full of pouting, exuberance, brief shouting matches and vigorous making up -- makes them seem a more extreme and violent version of an ordinary couple. Neither becomes a cartoon; and here the film's ambitions are different from Bonnie and Clyde's, with its parodic Americana.

It's the kind of film in which every character, no matter how minor, seems to have a long story behind him: Max Cullen, for instance, plays the creepy motel keeper, who free-associates a long, twisting monologue about the "unfathomable" tunnels beneath the earth (you know the ones). It's the kind of bizarre rant that could come from Buried Child or Repo Man. "The center of the world is empty, you know." The cops who chase our heroes are equally odd and enigmatic.

The now-canonical directors of Australia's late-'70s/early-'80s new wave -- the creators of films like My Brilliant Career, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and Breaker Morant -- have mostly, like the German directors of the 1930s, been swallowed by Hollywood. Bennett is a member of the island's younger generation, a group that seems to be more stubbornly clinging to Australia and its concerns.

In any case, Kiss or Kill is a gem -- the kind of eccentric, stylish little film that we keep expecting to come from America's independent film industry.

Kiss or Kill.
Directed by Bill Bennett. With Frances O'Connor, Matt Day, Chris Haywood and Barry Langrishe.

Rated R.
96 minutes.


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