Film Review: Wish You Were Here

With the news that Wish You Were Here has gotten a US release date, I thought it would be appropriate to post the review/analysis I wrote for my Australian Cinema course. Spoiler warning…

By Justin Wiemer, 18 June 2012

Few Australian films make their way across the ocean to America, but the ones that do – like 2010’s Animal Kingdom – are widely seen and appreciated. Wish You Were Here, written and directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith played opening day at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Partly due to its intriguing trailer and universal appeal, expectations were high for the Aussie thriller. The film observes how three adults deal with the disappearance of their friend after a drug-fueled party in Cambodia.

Despite being a masterfully acted character study, the film – especially its ending – is far from perfect. Joel Edgerton plays Dave Flannery, an architect who vacations with his wife Alice (Felicity Price), her sister Steph (Teresa Palmer), and Steph’s boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr). The family returns to Australia when Jeremy goes missing and has difficulty returning to normal life. Edgerton deserves most of the credit for keeping the film engaging. In an otherwise overtly negative review, The Playlist’s Todd Gilchrist praises: “he seems like a hand grenade that’s ready to blow the moment that anyone pulls the pin out of his efforts to preserve a sense of normalcy.” Indeed, the value of the film comes from how invested the viewer is in trying to understand Edgerton. Though we relate to Dave because he is the camera’s object, we are privy to his secret phone calls, worried expressions, paranoia, and panic attacks. We are instantly suspicious.

The film quickly gives us one explanation for Dave’s odd behavior. Confronted, he tells Alice that he slept with his sister-in-law the night of Jeremy’s disappearance. The filmmakers rightfully steer away from melodramatic soap opera territory. Rather the news is a plot point – not a spoiler (The Playlist). The characters consequently must deal with the infidelity, which adds genuine conflict and empathy to a narrative that requires it. It’s an ingenious device. Edgerton and Price turn in their best performances in scenes dealing with the cheating. Each conveys warring emotions of pain and guilt that complicates their already complicated position.

The other actors certainly hold their own as well.[1] Notably, Price struggles to understand why Edgerton becomes progressively secretive and introverted while exploring her own emotions. Gilchrist may believe that the film is “overwrought” and “undernourished,” but he fails to see the reality in the performances. Each cast member embodies a believable, lived-in presence; the audience can truly see the character arc shifting with an expression and inflection. Otherwise the deep, nuanced levels of the mystery would be lost.

The story takes a turn when Darcy-Smith’s flashbacks hint that Dave may know what happened to Jeremy, not just that he cheated on his wife.[2]  Each footnote adds new clues needed to solve the mystery and each causes the audience to view present events in a new light. For example, we learn that Dave, Alice, and Steph truly do not know Jeremy well. His shady business dealings are shown to the viewer in flashback, followed by police officers investigating confiscated boxes in present day. By intercutting the clues, Darcy-Smith keeps the audience invested and left piecing together the mystery.

The opening flashback does just this, by showing the characters taking ecstasy the night in question. This lays out the film’s central moral conundrum; The characters know what they are doing is illegal and therefore are reluctant to go to the police. They cannot remember what happened that night and importantly, cannot vouch for their own actions. There are clear stakes: Dave and Alice’s young family is too precious to lose. The infidelity, suspicious behavior, and drug use are thus the core of the film’s conflict. John Anderson writes for Variety: “there are no innocents in this mess (besides the kids), only degrees of culpability and gradations of bad behavior.” What are we to make of flashbacks showing Alice getting cozy with Jeremy? At times when the film finds us siding too much with one character, it undermines that allegiance. Just as we begin to believe Dave’s adultery with Steph was meaningless, flashbacks reveal that they may have shared one laugh too many, one glance too long. The film is deceptively good about throwing the viewer off truth’s trail.

The technical aspects of Wish You Were Here are just as strong as the acting and narrative devices. The cinematography is a treat to behold. Beautiful handheld work and shallow depth of field convey appropriate measures of intimacy and indexing. This is on display with the film’s opening credit montage: “a kaleidoscope of vibrant color, bustling street life, chaotic movement, and exhilarating music that conveys both seductive exoticism and the dangerous otherness of the place” (Rooney). This sequence’s editing has been best described as “sensual chaos” (Anderson). Additionally, it takes a skilled editor to deftly manage the intercutting of flashbacks and the clues gleaned from them.

Despite the film’s positive attributes – of which there are many – it is hindered by its final act and revelation. In short, Jeremy was killed after intervening in Dave’s drunken run-in with the Cambodian mob. One payoff that was not cashed in was an explanation of the ubiquitous Red Car. The driver is at once Alice’s English language student and Dave’s persistent stalker. The suspense is anti-climatic as Darcy-Smith meticulously ties up other loose ends.  At best, we can reason that the Red Car is the Cambodian mob reminding Dave that they know where he lives.

The film’s biggest misstep is the final flashback that explains both Jeremy’s disappearance as well as Dave’s behavior. Jeremy gets killed on Dave’s account, who is in turn blackmailed with his family in the balance. The derivative culmination feels lifted from numerous other films; A History of Violence and The Lincoln Lawyer have recently dealt with similar themes. The ending is too logical, too simple for a film with so many layers and potential answers. Dave is left innocent and responsible despite the buildup. The Vine’s Anthony Morris is unsatisfied with how the film’s concluding scenes wrap up the story: “What we get simply answers various plot points without adding to the film’s aura of moral decay.”

While it is true the characters largely escape blameless, the filmmakers are not merely “box-ticking” (Morris). The final shots do not tell the viewer of a happy ending, but suggest one may be around the corner. The audience wants to leave the theater understanding that, despite a damaged relationship, Dave and Alice will rebuild. Wish You Were Here maintains the mystery by giving the audience just enough information to achieve narrative closure. Snippets of Dave mentioning “witness protection” to the police and shots of the family unpacking into a new home imply a better life after the credits. After leaving the viewer to navigate through the story’s various twists and turns, Darcy-Smith rightfully trusts his audience to piece together the final clues. Despite the final flashback, the film is a compelling genre exercise and character study.

 

Bibliography

Anderson, John. “Variety Reviews – Wish You Were Here.” Variety. Variety, 19 Jan 2012. Web. 14 Jun 2012. <http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117946860?refcatid=31>.

McWeeny, Drew. “Review: Wish You Were Here sends Joel Edgerton on a nightmare vacation.” HitFix. HitFix, 01 Jan 2012. Web. 14 Jun 2012. <http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/motion-captured/posts/review-wish-you-were-here>.

Miraudo, Simon. “Picture imperfect – Wish You Were Here review.” Quickflix. Quickflix, 18 Apr 2012. Web. 14 Jun 2012. <http://blog.quickflix.com.au/2012/04/18/picture-imperfect-wish-you-were-here-review/>.

Morris, Anthony. “Wish You Were Here – movie review.” The Vine. HitFix, 23 Apr 2012. Web. 14 Jun 2012. <http://www.thevine.com.au/entertainment/movies/wish-you-were-here-movie-review/>.

Rooney, David. “Wish You Were Here: Sundance Film Review.” The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, 20 Jan 2012. Web. 14 Jun 2012.             <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/sundance-2012-wish-you-were-review-283521>.

Suber, Howard. The Power of Film. Michael Wiese Productions, 2006. Print.

Todd, Gilchrist. “Sundance Review: ‘Wish You Were Here’ With Joel Edgerton & Teresa Palmer An Overwrought, Undercooked Mystery.” The Playlist. Indiewire, 18 Apr 2012. Web. 14 Jun 2012. <http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/sundance-review-wish-you-were-here-with-joel-edgerton-teresa-palmer-an-overwrought-undercooked-mystery>.

Zeitchik, Steven L. “Sundance 2012: A Joel Edgerton thriller that evokes…’The Hangover’?.” 24 Frames. Los Angeles Times, 19 Jan 2012. Web. 14 Jun 2012.         <http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/movies/2012/01/sundance-2012-opening-night-joel-edgerton-australia-wish-you-were-here.html>.

 

Filmography

Wish You Were Here. Dir. Kieran Darcy-Smith. Australia, 2012

 


[1] Though a strong performance, Teresa Palmer’s Steph is not as well developed as the other characters. Despite being closest to Jeremy, she never appears to externalize her grief. Steph says that she is hurting in a powerful scene with Alice, but the audience does not have a chance to witness her pain. Perhaps such moments were left on the cutting room floor.

[2] The film begins in flashback in order to employ the Completion and Return narrative structure. We see a shell-shocked, half-naked Dave wandering in a remote field. The audience knows something is amiss. What happened? “By the end of the story, the central character or the situation or the audience – sometimes all three – have moved beyond where they were at the beginning” (Suber 90). Certainly, this is the case in Wish You Were Here as all becomes revealed. The shot is repeated, though this time we understand the context.

Sydney, Day 37

June 28th

I can’t believe it’s been a little more than a month since my last post. (It actually means that I’ve been busy!) I was recently reminded that we only have 9 business days left of our internship. Work has been amazing. I divide my time between research and design. The research isn’t bad at all: When the company makes a pitch book, they need relevant imagery to populate the pages. The creative director and producers quickly realized that I knew the software that they use on a day-to-day basis (After Effects). As a result, I’m their first intern who has contributed to their portfolio of high-profile motion graphics. I don’t know what I can say specifically, but the videos I helped with are for sport TV stations and reality TV shows.

My Australian Cinema class is awesome too! I’ll post a list of the films I’ve seen soon.

Even though work and class have taken up most of my time during the week, I still have the weekends to get out. I’ve been to Bondi, Bronte Beach, Taronga Zoo, The Rocks, Circular Quay, and importantly, the grocery store. I also took a tour of the Sydney Opera House. We got to see some of the numerous stages in the complex, as well as the orchestra rehearsing.

My cousin Avital and I are in the process of planning an epic trip at the end of July. Stay tuned!

Vivid Sydney

Bronte Beach

Taronga Zoo

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

Sydney, Day 1-3

May 22-25th

Wow. What a crazy last few days. I won’t go over it, but you can see by my schedule that we have been busy getting oriented to life at BU Sydney.

Most of my time has consisted of unpacking, finding kosher food, finding internet, sorting out my Shavous plans, meeting TONS of people, exploring the neighborhood, working out the internship, and just enjoying being here. The dorm is great and the staff are awesome too.

I will be interning at zspace, a commercial production company close by. I had the interview today (Friday) and it is going to be an amazing experience. They have everything I love about a work environment.

Getting ready for Shavous…

Schedule Page 1

 

Schedule Page 2

Sydney, Day 0.5

May 21st

I went to bed at 2 am on Sunday night (the 20th). I wanted to sleep earlier, but I knew it was a problem that I could barely move my suitcase. It is huge; it weighs 30lbs without any clothes in it.Airlines charge exorbitant fees for oversize bags. Something had to be done, so I stuffed what I could into a large garbage bag until it could reasonably move again.

At 4:30 I woke up to start my journey from Boston to Australia. I was accompanied by backpack, large suitcase, small box, and garbage bag.

Since no one was crazy enough to be awake and driving at 5 am, the taxi ride went quickly.

The first leg of the trip was a flight from Boston to LA. Wow. I don’t envy all the BU students who have to make that flight frequently. I finished watching Rebel without a Cause and watched The Lineup (1958). Not sure why I knew about that last one. Aside from being directed by Don Siegel and set in San Francisco, I don’t know why it was notable.

Immediately after landing in LA, myself and two other BU students on the Sydney program found each other. Jesse, Alex, and I faced a 12 hour layover! It didn’t take too long to decide we’d rather spend that time at the beach rather than the airport. While we were getting bus directions to Santa Monica, we met a Taiwanese Masters student on her way to Costa Rica to present her paper about the merchandizing industry surrounding Korean TV shows. She joined us. Her first taste of LA was a guy on the bus harassing her for a dollar – in front of transit police! Welcome to the USA.

The group got some lunch and we decided to eat on the beach. The walk was annoying; at this point, I was still carrying the backpack and garbage bag of clothes everywhere. Maybe 45 pounds.

Jesse had never been west of the Mississippi and took the opportunity to swim in the ocean:

Jesse wearing seaweed

Jesse has been henceforth nicknamed “Otter.”

Santa Monica pier was right near where we were eating. Alex spotted the roller coaster and we were off:

Alex can’t wait to ride the coaster.

Andrew used his iPhone to figure out that Venice Beach was nearby. And by nearby I mean a mile or so along the coast. Of course that didn’t stop us. We picked up our bags and went on our way. It didn’t take too long for the traveling to catch up to us:

Fun in the Sun

Between Santa Monica and Venice Beach.

While everyone napped, the Taiwanese student and I spoke about her research, TV, and consumer behavior.

 

Venice Beach was crazy. Definitely hippieville. There were lots of street venders selling things of quality (art) and junk (pre-made panhandler signs). There were many storefronts of weed doctors offering to give you a $40 “checkup.” Their neon green scrubs made them seem so much more legit. One highlight was watching a drunk bum fight unfold in front of us. It got pretty serious.

Looking down Venice Beach.

Hippie Jews?

It was time to get back to the airport, so we took the bus back from Venice Beach. Everyone who came was sporting great tans/sunburns.

At LAX we met up with other BU Sydney students. We quickly became known as “Those-Guys-That-Left-The-Airport-Awesome-Why-Didn’t-We-Think-Of-That?” There, I met even more students interested in film.

Ginseng in LAX

Something special from Wisconsin? What?

Waiting for takeoff.

I am proud of myself for stepping outside of my comfort zone and just saying “yes.” I had an amazing 12 hours that I will never regret. Despite the slight sunburn.

UPDATE: Two days in and the Beach Group is still fast friends.

 

The plane ride was pretty nice. The aircraft was two stories and the BU students occupied a lot of seats. I sat next to a great guy – a likeminded BU film student. Aside from talking to him, I watched We Need to Talk About Kevin, Carnage, and A Dangerous Method on the awesome in-flight entertainment catalog. The one bummer was that the airline did not have a kosher dinner for me – DESPITE having confirmed numerous times with the travel agency. A special thanks to the woman next to me who gave me her extra chips and fresh fruit.

15 hours later we landed in Sydney, boarded the bus, and were on our way…

Sydney, Day 0

Lots of people have asked me to blog my trip, so here goes…

Less than 12 hours to go before my journey begins. Over the next two months, I will be studying abroad in Sydney through the BU Summer Internship Program. Even though most of my time will be spent interning for credit, I look forward to taking Australian Cinema. This course will further my love and appreciation for this body of work.

The Aussie films I have already seen:

  • Broken Hill
  • The Black Balloon
  • Gallipoli
  • Samson and Delilah
  • Animal Kingdom
  • The Tracker
  • Romulus, My Father
  • Kenny
  • Proof
  • Rabbit-Proof Fence
  • Strictly Ballroom
  • Moulin Rouge!
  • Australia

I will post about Sydney, the study abroad experience, and of course, Australian film.

 

See you on the other side,
Justin

Packing in Boston

Packing up in Boston, Day 0