From the seedy fringes of Australian suburbia, director David Caesar dredges up a portrait of idle and vanquished lives in his second feature Idiot Box (1996). Two moronic dole bludgers, Kev (Ben Mendelsohn) and Mick (Jeremy Sims), spend their life stuck in a familiar loop. Highlights of their day include a walk to the local bottle shop or terrorising a neighbour’s guard dog. With little cash and no means of transportation, their lone ‘big idea’ comes in the form of robbing a bank. Mick has even concocted a recipe for sure-fire success, one that avoids the stereotypical failings he’s made note of in run-of-the-mill Hollywood films.
A cynical hothead who treats his live-in girlfriend Betty (Susie Porter) like a piece of errantly-placed furniture, Kev’s notions of carrying out the perfect crime soon begin to take on the weight of something tangible. At the same time, Mick tries to crack on to the pretty young wide-eyed bottle shop attendant, Lani (Robyn Loau), whose overbearing but dim-witted brother will later become entangled in the pair’s criminal delusion. Coincidentally, a series of bank robberies has a pair of hotshot detectives (Graeme Blundell and Deborah Kennedy) baffled, scouring through the files of lowlifes in the region to come up with viable suspects. Inevitably, it seems, their compasses will be pointing in a certain direction as the fates of our protagonists and others converge.
What mostly prevents Caesar’s profane, kinetic drama from devolving into grotesquery is its coal-black streak of humour. The constant banter between Kev and Mick may be crude and juvenile but it’s genuinely funny too, and rings with a degree of depressing but undeniable truthfulness. Whether recreating a robbery scenario in their living room with a toilet brush in place of a gun, or snatching a donation tin from a guy in a koala suit – which sets off a madcap foot race – these two malcontents are constantly pushing the boundaries of an oblivion that’s closing in further with suffocating intent each uneventful day.
Stylistically the film has plenty going for it with Caesar’s astute cinematic sensibilities really coming to the fore. The narrative moves quickly, settling into a rocking, rasping rhythm all its own. There are consistently interesting set-ups, camera movements and quick cuts that bring immediacy to what, in other hands, might have been a stale, navel-gazing drama. At times Caesar may slightly overdo it; certainly the wild diversity of music choices, though generally effective, often create jarring transitions between scenes, but the unsettling, abrasive tone Caesar is aiming for comes across loud and clear.
Idiot Box is an uncompromising look in the mirror, a vision of vanquished men hamstrung by a lack of education, prospects or the intelligence to extract themselves from the morass of a suburban hell. Beyond the dark stain of its often coarse but very Australian humour there’s an indelible imprint of stunted lives vanishing to the beat of a silent drum; of a writer taking deadly aim, not only at the ruthless, oblivious world around us, but more transparently, at ourselves most of all. Idiot Box proves that we’re our own worst enemies, treading water in a tenuous impersonation of living.
Mick and Kev are worryingly symptomatic of a recognisable surburban malaise. They’re pathetic drongos – misfits who’ve sacrificed a few too many brain cells to the almighty God of Alcohol. They may be great for a laugh, but Kev in particular is sliding dangerously close to the point of internal combustion. He despises boredom, he says. He may dream of robbing a bank by force, but is it to reap a financial bounty as a means of improving their chances of survival? Or simply to alleviate the drudgery of their directionless existences?
This remains Caesar’s finest hour as a writer and as a director, providing social observation camouflaged as nihilism, supplemented with lashings of brash, misogynistic futility; all relayed with a potency he hasn’t been able to replicate since. It may swell with ugly external markings and be an unlikely candidate for consideration as a defining film of its time, but Idiot Box works perfectly on a visceral level. It’s something akin to being told a viciously funny joke whilst having your head rammed down a toilet bowl.