- Directed and written by Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan
- Starring Travis McMahon, David Lyons, Bryan Brown and Shane Jacobson
- Classification: 14A
In the outback nobody can hear you scream - that is, nobody who might come to your rescue if you're tied up in the back of beat-up Ford Fairmont driving toward an unknown destination.
That's the situation professional gambler Eli Jones (David Lyons) finds himself in when he comes to after being attacked and drugged outside a Sydney haunt. What he did, what he owes or who he is doesn't matter to his captor and driver, John Kelly (Travis McMahon). At least, not right away.
In her feature debut Cactus, Sydney-based writer-director Jasmine Yuen-Carrucan - like many Aussie filmmakers - sets her story against the vast arid badlands of Australia for more than scenic reasons. This is no walkabout. Cactus is a tense road movie with an atmosphere that feels claustrophobic against the outback's open expanse, thanks to some fine mood-enhancing shooting by cinematographer Florian Emmerich.
Essentially a two-hander, Cactus tracks the relationship between captor and victim. Average guy John is charged with delivering his human cargo to a remote drop-off point, no questions asked. Suave player Eli, however, has many questions and - when he's not attempting to escape - wants to figure out who hired John and what his real motivation is. Everything becomes less straightforward when they hit a bump in the road that throws into question who's really got the upper hand.
John at first seems to have the cool head of a pro. He is stopped for speeding by a tough-talking outback cop (Bryan Brown), who doesn't bother to inspect the car, a lucky break for John. But he is also prepared, having already driven the route, stashed jugs of petrol and found a place where they can hole up for the night. Eli seizes every chance to make a break, but his ankles are bound and his feet bare; at one point, John is so tired of Eli's constant chatter that he opens the door to let him hobble down the road with the brutal sun beating down. There's simply nowhere to run.
The game-changing twist comes when John stops the Ford, blasts loud children's music to torment Eli, then walks up a hill to call his wife and young daughter. A large transport truck pulls up. John shoots the driver, Thommo (Shane Jacobson of mockumentary Kenny), wounding him badly, and forces Eli to help him heave the unconscious man into the cab of the truck.
While these are unappealing characters, McMahon and Lyons allow us glimpses of their better selves, as outright loathing slowly gives way to the human desire for meaning and connection. Cactus falters when it take the focus off the men to show us the cop and his outback comrades hunting down Thommo's shooter - it detracts from the desperate confusion the men experience when they realize they are being pursued. Cactus thrives on sparse dialogue and scant backstory, so the flood of information in the final act waters down what is otherwise a dark outback thriller.
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