‘The Cost’, a terrific, tense Australian thriller; dud Oz comedy ‘Scant’ is all over the place; Australian satirical series C*A*U*G*H*T is C*R*U*D

Payback problems: Jordan Fraser-Trumble and Damon Hunter in ‘The Cost’.

THE COST **** (111 minutes) MA
Two angry men on a well-planned quest for vengeance have their moral clarity upended in The Cost, an outstanding small-scale thriller that grabs you by the throat from the get-go and never lets go, tightening its grip as a seemingly straightforward situation gets ever more complicated.

Believing the legal system has failed them, David (Jordan Fraser-Trumble) and Aaron (Damon Hunter) intend to exact their own brand of justice on Troy (Kevin Dee), an ex-con who they contend hasn’t been sufficiently punished for the heinous wrong he has done.

Building tension with great precision and attention to detail, director Matthew Holmes (The Legend of Ben Hall, co-writing with Gregory Ross) tightens the screws on the scenario slowly as the simplicity of the mission becomes increasingly, and inconveniently complex. Performances throughout are totally convincing.

The Cost is easily one of the best offerings in what has been a lean year for Australian film, yet it’s only received a few scant cinema screenings before its streaming release.

It remains a mystery why quality Australian fare struggle to get theatrical seasons while vastly inferior films from elsewhere get such wide exposure.

There’s a screening at the Nova, Sunday 15 October at 5pm. It’ll also be on DVD & Blu-ray through Madman from Wednesday 18 October. A planned streaming release on iTunes, Amazon, Google, YouTube, Vimeo, box and Shift72 has been postponed until March 2024.

Michael Nikou in ‘Slant’.

SLANT * (113 minutes) MA
A dreadful attempt at a comedy thriller, Slant is yet another Australian film pockmarked with signs it needed much more refinement before hitting the set.

Set in 1999 Melbourne, it’s supposed to be a jaunt about the investigation by struggling journalist Derek (Michael Nikou, also writer and producer) into the circumstances of a missing socialite.

Haphazard direction, wildly erratic performances and a host of plot implausibilities render much of the film difficult to endure, with a mishandled denouement that is positively cringeworthy.

And why on Earth is it so damned long? Why is it one second over 90 minutes? Had the old storytelling principle of making something better by making it shorter been applied here Slant might have scored.

As it is, it’s a tiresome, unfocused mess.

Four soldiers are kidnapped in ‘Caught’.

CAUGHT 1/2 (187 minutes; six episodes) MA
whole series review

It’s hard to imagine anyone but diehard fans of bad TV surviving beyond the first episode or two of Caught, and those souls who do will likely become consumed with one prevailing thought: “Dear God, how bad is this going to get?”

The answer: plenty.

Once you hit the dick-in-the-face joke in the first episode of this resoundingly limp you might be fooled into thinking that, well, as bad as the show is at least the standard of comedy can’t get any lower.

It does.

Painfully unfunny and pointlessly vulgar, Caught offers three hours of misfired gags, off-key direction, weak storytelling and a marathon of acting that is so straight-out bad you are forced to question how much rehearsal time was involved.

The premise involves four rogue Australian soldiers who are kidnapped by rebels in the fictitious island nation of Behati-Prinsloo. There to retrieve an incriminating file sent by the Australian defense minister, they cook up a deal with their captors to use social media to serve their causes. This includes making fake hostage videos and using Instagram to boost their celebrity.

A perfectly serviceable idea, sure, only the execution sours within minutes and the shebang never finds its bearings.

Central to the show’s woes is the standard of performances from the central cast – Ben O’Toole, Alexander England, Lincoln Younes Kick Gurry (also creator, writer, director) – which is absolutely woeful.

The surest way to sap any satire of potency is to have characters behave as though they are aware that they are in a satire. That’s the case with these four, along with most of the others including Sean Penn (an executive producer), whose attempts at self-parody fall flat.

It’s a salient reminder how satire that becomes self-conscious loses its bite. The only ones who should be aware of the satire are those watching.

Among other notable actors drawn into this crud are Susan Sarandon, John C. McGinley, Bryan Brown and Matthew Fox, whose constant gum-chewing renders his performance almost unwatchable.

The thin production quality doesn’t help. The video look is terrible, there’s nervous over-use of music throughout and some of the visual effects – especially in the final ep – are terrible.

The show feels like a good idea in the wrong format. As a tight 90-minute comedy it might have rung the bell, but at three hours there are way too many sequences that could have been tightened or excised altogether.

There are a surfeit of elongated flashbacks and prolonged bits about the art of acting that are strained beyond endurance. The earnest political sandwich-board messaging feel like story notes put on film, the jibes about social media and fake news are forced. One soldier even wants an OnlyFans account and to post workout videos.

Preoccupied with dicks, bums and scatological gags, the vulgarity deployed throughout is best captured when the soldiers jump into a latrine, are covered in excrement and are then urinated on. That it’s repulsive isn’t the issue; it’s that it’s totally unfunny. John Waters knew the difference.

As for the storytelling, in Episodes Four and Five we see a descent into complete incoherence – including a bullet trajectory that defies physics (and, yes, such details do matter).

Japes about golf courses, online journalism and conspiracies highlight the atonal direction and non-existent sense of pacing, with an exposition scene that is so poorly performed it looks like a rehearsal.

Perhaps the most telling moment in this debacle is the scene in Episode Six that bears the caption:
A Bar
Somewhere that makes geographical sense to this story

To see such a line in the final episode of a show confirms what you’ve long felt, that the show is aware of how stupid it is and how watching it has been a complete waste of time.

Caught is directed by Kick Gurry, a talented actor who, according to IMDB, doesn’t have any other directing credits. It’s just a theory, but might not a six-part satire have benefitted somewhat from a more seasoned director? Just a suggestion.

As for the insistence on calling the show C*A*U*G*H*T, one can only presume it’s an attempt to draw parallels with the classic satire M*A*S*H.

If that be the case, then any search for the definition of wishful thinking can end here.