To the degree that I was familiar with the film career of director Roger Donaldson, it was probably because he made what I would argue is one of the best American thrillers of the eighties, No Way Out (1987).
Donaldson actually had a pretty lengthy and productive directorial career after he decamped to Hollywood in the early 1980s from his native New Zealand: The Bounty (1984), Marie (1985), Cocktail (1988 – a terrible but successful film which gets a pass from me only because it features another Antipodean who was making his way in the US film industry in the 1980s, Bryan Brown), the psychological thriller, White Sands (1992), the wonderful hot garbage that was his 1994 remake of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, and the better than average action sci fi film, Species (1995).
But over the weekend I finally caught up with the two New Zealand films that Donaldson cut his teeth on as a director and which got him noticed internationally, Sleeping Dogs (1977) and Smash Palace (1981). I don’t want to go into too much detail but having finally watched them I wanted to write a little about them, because both of them are excellent.
Sleeping Dogs was Donaldson’s first film and tells the story of a loner, simply known as Smith (a very young Sam Neill), who is estranged from his family and living in a remote part of the country when he is reluctantly swept up in an underground revolutionary movement that is fighting against a right-wing dictatorial government that has taken over New Zealand. I know what you are thinking, that neither the setting – New Zealand in the late 1970s – nor the relatively meagre production budget work in terms of effectively conveying a revolutionary struggle against thuggish authoritarian state, but Donaldson pulls it off.
The idea that the state could fall victim to increasing trade union militancy, providing the excuse for far-right elements to take control, got a lot of play in fiction and film in the 1970s. And basing the story on a book by New Zealand Writer Christian K Stead, Smith’s Dream, Donaldson makes it work in the Zealand setting. Without giving too much away, the last quarter of the movie, in which Smith and another member of the underground resistance find themselves on the run through densely forested country from soldiers sent to hunt them down, would be echoed, deliberately or not, many years later in Taika Waititi’s marvellous 2016 film, Hunt For the Wliderpeople. As a side note, a lot of you will get a kick out of the presence of Warren Oates, who plays an American mercenary sent to hunt down members of the underground.
Smash Palace, Donaldson’s second film after Sleeping Dogs, also has at its core the struggle of an emotionally constrained male, Al Shaw, played by Bruno Lawrence. Shaw is an ex-racing car driver, who owns a small-town car repair yard. He dotes on his young daughter, Georgie (a jaw droppingly good performance by Greer Robson), but has difficulty relating to his free-spirited French wife, Jacqui (Anna Maria Monticelli), who is growing discontented being married to an emotionally remote car mechanic. Jacqui leaves Shaw and begins a relationship with the town’s policeman, taking the daughter with her. Deprived of the one thing in his life which gives him joy, Shaw kidnaps the daughter and takes her into the New Zealand bush.
I was very conscious while I was watching Smash Palace, that Shaw’s actions don’t exactly chime with the #MeToo era. In many respects, this doesn’t matter so much to me. But anchored by great performances by Lawrence (who by dying far too young at the age of just 54, deprived us of what I am sure would have been some great performances) and Monticelli, the film avoids the obvious problems that could flow from this and is a credible and moving portrayal of the messy disintegration of a relationship and the choices, rightly or wrongly, this forces both parties to make. Donaldson wrote, directed and produced Smash Palace and I particularly like the way that in his hands, Shaw’s character doesn’t attempt to justify stealing his daughter, to her or himself. He knows it is an act of desperation, the result among other things of his inability to deal with his emotions.
And therein lies what I think is a signature trait of Donaldson’s early films and, indeed, a great deal of his subsequent Hollywood output, his incredible economy of storytelling, in terms of in terms of both character and how setting informs this. This is what prevents Sleeping Dogs from falling flat and Smash Palace from being viewed as a piece of men’s rights propaganda.