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