BIG HOUSE FILM REVIEWS ~ Roger Westcombe
KISS OR KILL (1997)
Starring Frances O’Connor, Matt Day, Barry Otto, Max Cullen, Chris Haywood, Andrew S.Gilbert, Barry Langrishe; dir: Bill Bennett
This 1997 release is the first Australian feature to be described as film noir. Around this time every second Oz film seemed to be an outback road movie with Miranda Otto; Kiss Or Kill is a desert road thriller, with Miranda’s dad Barry. Because its protagonists are a photogenic young couple it has become associated with the amour fou, lovers-on-the-run strand of thrillers epitomized by Gun Crazy (1950), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Badlands (1973) - and also picked up the unkind sobriquet Natural Born Koalas.
Kiss Or Kill is a strong thriller - unpredictable, well-paced and enjoyably intricate. Its rhythm is orchestrated in a mix of longuers that befit its road setting, and Breathless -style jump cuts whose staccato pacing heightens the pitch and mimic the racing pulsebeat of crisis moments - of which there are ample for our young fugitives.
Its their depiction as basically nasty, ruthless crims that is one point of distinction between Kiss Or Kill and on-the-run thrillers like Bonnie and Clyde and They Live By Night (1948), whose central him’n’her characters exude naiveté, innocence and charm.
The other difference is the nature of the people they encounter on the way. A hostile universe is vital to the impact of true innocents-on-the-lam narratives like these latter titles, as it contrasts with the kids’ vulnerability to give these films their impact and audience identification. By contrast, in Kiss Or Kill these encounters are road-movie quirky, and its our young lovers who are the dangerous elements afoot.
(Badlands comprehensively demystifies this particularly American form of outlaw mythicizing, with the anomie of its blank-faced serial killers shifting viewer allegiance to the victims, and thus the society through which they move. It’s a road movie in opposition to the vicarious freedom and liberation that makes the genre so appealing. In thus breaking the mold, Badlands is simultaneously punk - and deeply conservative.)
Unlike typical road movies, the insignificance-inducing vastness of outback isolation is dispensed with here in favor of the daytime scenes being shot as interiors, the resulting claustrophobia underlining the couples’ entrapment (in themselves, their limited choices, their looming capture, etc) and providing a compression that maintains thriller levels of tension. Only in the beautifully panoramic, inky-black outback nights are the characters’ horizons allowed to open out; they are true creatures of the night.
A brittle black humor permeates Kiss Or Kill, adding hugely to its enjoyment and its tension. This humor can be as dry as the saltpans they traverse, and a dialogue set-up between the two cops bluffing each other out over breakfast ("You don’t eat bacon?; No, my parents were in Mossad..." etc) recalls a similar deadpan triple-reverse in Crossfire (1947) when B-girl Gloria Grahame’s husband surprises the fugitive soldier in their apartment ("I’m her husband - no, that’s a lie too...").
Director Bill Bennett appears to know his history, even if Kiss Or Kill is not film noir. There’s a fire motif running through this film whose load-bearing function within the narrative recalls the similar psychological thread in Raw Deal (1948), though here it’s deployed without that film’s cruelty. And the title, with its echoes of Kiss Me Deadly, The Killers, etc is not only resonant, but objective. In a world of extremes, our closest intimates hold our uncertain fates in their hands – sometimes literally *.
* See Bennett’s interview (below) recalling the knife incident which inspired Kiss Or Kill:
" I was at Broken hill in a shearing shed during the making of Backlash in 1986... all morning, he (a crew member who befriended Bill) had been playing with this big-bladed Rambo knife which he had bought.... Then he stopped and he looked at me with this very clear gaze and he said, "Bill, I could cut your throat. I could put your body underneath these floorboards here and, when the rest of the crew came back, I could tell them that you'd gone for a walk down by the creek. No one would ever know." He held that gaze and in that moment I discovered that in fact I really didn't know this man. I didn't know whether or not he was serious or whether he was joking ... . Anyway, he burst out laughing. The moment was forgotten for him, but it stayed with me. That really was the genesis of Kiss Or Kill; that somebody I thought I knew, somebody I was good friends with, could have a side of his personality that I just could not fathom. "
Source: Cinema Papers, May 1997, No 116
Roger Westcombe's own website is at: http://www.bighousefilm.com/
For additional material on 'Kiss or Kill' you might want to look at:
http://movie-reviews.colossus.net/movies/k/kiss_kill.html - James Berardinelli, 'Kiss or Kill: A Film Review'
http://www.tulane.edu/~tuhulla/19971017/arcade/film/bennetts.htm - Marcelle Rousseau, 'Bennett's Kiss or Kill Does Both'
http://www.filmvault.com/filmvault/chicago/k/kissorkill1.html - NewCityNet: links to reviews
For more discussion of Australian film noir, see Roger Westcombe's Introduction to film noir.