TJ (Dean Daley-Jones) is a mad bastard. Full of attitude and prone to aggressive outbursts, TJ travels over 2000 kilometres to see Bullet (Lucas Yeeda), his 13-year-old son whom he’s never met. Unfortunately, the environment of domestic violence and alcoholism that Bullet is living in means that he’s quickly becoming a mad bastard too. Like many men who suffer from an inability to communicate and grow-up, TJ is the source and recipient of so many frustrations and so much harm. However, Mad Bastards is not a film about despair but a film about overcoming masculine pride and reconnecting with what matters in life.
Writer/director Brendan Fletcher has a long personal history with the Kimberly region of north-western Australia where most of the film is set, and uses the stories and experiences he cultivated to carve out Mad Bastards. Almost the entire cast are non-professional Indigenous Australian actors and as revealed in a series of interviews before the final credits, in many cases they play characters derived from personal experiences. The resulting performances are confident but contain an unpolished rawness that contributes to the film’s authenticity. Fletcher also has a documentary background (including collaborating with Leah Purcell on Black Chicks Talking) so is clearly comfortable with the improvisational approach he has taken with the actors.
There is an aching sadness running throughout Mad Bastards that often catches you unawares, especially when the camera lingers on the extraordinary landscape that surrounds these troubled men. The contrast between the natural beauty of the Australian wilderness (beautifully shot by cinematographer Allan Collins) and the social problems that plague the people within it is heartbreaking. It also means that moments where the characters reconnect with each other are extremely poignant. Water is an evocative motif for healing and there are several scenes where the characters reach out to each other, wash away their demons or reflect on their lives while situated near or in bodies of water.
The final driving force behind Mad Bastards is the music score by Alex Lloyd and the legendary Pigram Brothers, who are also producers and appear in the film as themselves as a sort of Greek Chorus. There is a gentle melancholy underneath their simple melodies but also a sense of hope for a brighter future. Combined with the film craftsmanship so evidently on display and the honest performances, Mad Bastards is simply Australia’s most impressive film since Animal Kingdom.
Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 379, 2011