The Australian film "Backlash" (Westside Pavilion) is an action-fable about social injustice and the tight, tricky bonds of humanity, unwinding with uneven but often absorbing effect through a gloriously desolate stretch of Outback.
Throughout the film, we're mostly in the company of only three characters: two Sydney cops--one male, one female--transporting an aboriginal girl who may have been framed for murder. As the journey unfolds, these dissimilar guards, a seemingly shameless male chauvinist and a tough quasi-feminist, become increasingly sympathetic toward each other and their charge. It's a situation roughly reminiscent of the Jack Nicholson movie "The Last Detail," and Nicholson himself is briefly invoked in the dialogue, a kind of aesthetic godfather.
The '70s American road movies often had settings like this one: mythic arenas where ideals collided, cars careened through emptiness and past historic conflict hung in the air like fever heat. The Outback vistas, caught sparely and cleanly by Tony Wilson's camera, stretch enticingly around the central trio.
Moving through this vast, dusty, golden landscape, the three bicker, probe each other, seduce and withdraw. They sack out in chilly, bare motels and they're finally stranded together absurdly and impotently, in the middle of sheep country.
"Backlash's" young writer-director Bill Bennett, up to now a documentary specialist, clearly was influenced by the road movies, but he's taken their seemingly off-the-cuff style a step further. Scenes and story were set in advance, but not the dialogue; the actors improvise all their lines.
This technique--which people associate, often wrongly, with John Cassavetes' films, and which film makers like Mike Leigh, Rob Nilsson, Henry Jaglom and Blake Edwards (in "That's Life!") have used--yields typically mixed results. It gives some of "Backlash's" scenes terrific edginess and spontaneity.
The actors play in contrasting body styles. As Trevor Darling, the chauvinist, David Argue--the most expert of the three at improvising dialogue--is tight and swaggering, his voice a provoking semi-snarl. As his partner, Nikki, Gia Carides is looser-limbed but guarded, and as prisoner Kath, Lydia Miller travels the landscape with casual freedom.
Bennett's weakest scenes come toward the end: an overly melodramatic inquisition and an overly pat payoff keyed around scales of justice that are far too symbolic. But, in the earlier desert stillness, with poetry swimming up seemingly unaware out of the quiet, "Backlash" (Times-rated: Mature, for sex and language) proves again that cinema excels at catching the seemingly accidental inflections of reality.