To say an actor is the best part of a film is usually meant as praise for the strength of their performance, not direct commentary on the quality of that film. To say that Sullivan Stapleton is the best part of a movie is, as of now, a statement that’s cause for concern. The Australian beefcake is likely best known to North American audiences for his role as the sentient marble statue that took over for Gerard Butler in the recent, dismal 300 sequel, where pitting him against a deliriously engaged Eva Green shone a spotlight on Stapleton’s charisma vacuum. You could blame the script and direction just as well, but handsome musclemen looking to climb out of the action movie heap often prove themselves worthy by doing more with less.
Saying Stapleton is the best part of Cut Snake would be a slam, were it not for the fact that it’s a film practically dedicated to subverting your expectations of the actor. Director Tony Ayres and screenwriter Blake Ayshford have crafted a vehicle that, at first blush, seems well suited to its star’s established capabilities. Stapleton is asked to look mean and act meaner, and the film plays fast and loose with his dress code (no sense in covering up those abs and pecs unless absolutely necessary). It’s the exact sort of performance called for from the rote crime thriller Cut Snake pretends to be for so long, before taking a chance that Stapleton capitalizes on fully, even if the film doesn’t.
Set in 1974 Melbourne, the time period of Cut Snake is the first of many elements that’s wholly superficial. There’s nothing about the culture or the politics of Australia of the era that’s really influencing the goings-on, so the ‘70s setting often just seems like an excuse to have fun with the costuming. Unnecessary though it is, at least it’s a swing at something different. The film opens on James (Stapleton), a murderous tough that’s fresh out of the clink, and looking for a former cellmate named Sparra. If James’ mosaic of body art and wicked smile don’t immediately tell you he’s nothing but trouble, the menacing fashion in which he finds Sparra’s location certainly will.
The dude is bad news, though after spending five minutes with the folks he’s trying to track down, you’ll be desperate for his return. Since getting out of prison, Sparra (Alex Russell) has taken on the much more mundane name of Mirv, and been living the good life with his fiancée, Paula (Jessica De Gouw). Mirv and Paula toil away at day jobs to put a roof over their heads they can barely afford, but all other things considered, they have a perfect life together. You know this because they’re the type of couple that likes to remind each another how perfectly perfect and happy they are at every possible opportunity.
After properly incensing fate to throw a wrench into their premarital bliss, James arrives to disrupt the relationship by trying to bring his former cellmate back to the old life. With Paula blissfully unaware of her fiancé’s past deeds, James drives a wedge between the pair by leveraging Mirv into a risky money-making venture, and a few bloody nights out.
It’s exactly as cut-rate a plot as it sounds, with Ayres’ direction and Ayshford’s script doing nothing to elevate the proceedings above the baseline tension that you expect when a dangerous uninvited guest worms their way into a lovebird’s nest. For the first half, the only truly original material Cut Snake has to contribute are occasional feints towards exploring the impact prison sexual violence has had on the ex-cons. His first night with Mirv and Paula, James’ control of an evening out evaporates once it turns out he’s been taken to a gay bar. James has the hulking size to match the anger issues, but his machismo dissolves into insecure frustration with only the lightest of teasing from a drag queen.
It’s the first real scene to make an impression, as Cut Snake wiles away its first half on the familiar beats that come with Mirv digging a deeper ditch for himself by trying to keep his past buried. But it’s right at the halfway point that Cut Snake attempts the best kind of left turn, one that opens up a whole new direction for the story to go, yet had also been inevitable. Cut Snake does better on the latter feature, as upon reflection, Ayres and Ayshford have subtly signalled the change to come all along. On the former, it’s more disappointing, as early scenes in the back half that embrace the potential for new character dynamics eventually give way to the story course-correcting back to the path you assumed it was heading towards.
De Gouw never rises above the requirements for a character that’s always either completely in the dark, or shocked when the truth comes to light. Russell’s affectless seriousness fairs a little better once he loosens up for the second half, but he’s overshadowed by the complete 180 Stapleton pulls with both his character, and your impression of his potential. Cut Snake backs away from the gem of an idea that could have made it great, but Stapleton never stops digging into James for the surprising amount of pathos he’s eventually worth. By the finale, nuances have developed for a character that, an hour ago, barely registered as more than a cutout thug, and it’s Stapleton alone that gives the cheesy, inevitable ending any sort of resonance.
If it didn’t shy away from the implications of its unique hook, Cut Snake might have made for a memorable deconstruction of these sorts of crime stories, instead of being a mostly carbon copy of one. It’s really quite frustrating, as the degree to which its turn takes you by surprise is due to how convincingly it plays the part of a dull caper drama for forty-five minutes. As fun as it is to see Cut Snake revealed as something more thoughtful than you might have guessed, a better version of the film would have been able to devote an entire runtime to the idea at its core, instead of just using it as a twist.