Wayne Travers (Luke Ford) is potentially facing jail after repeatedly ramming his former boss’s car in a rage after being fired. Wayne is angry, resentful and sullen while his boss Greg Baldoni (Vince Colosimo), who was in the car at the time, is understandably upset. Instead of going through the court system Wayne is allowed to take part in a community conference where he confronts Greg, other former work colleagues and a handful of other people connected to the incident. What seems like a straightforward situation with Wayne clearly in the wrong and not showing much remorse soon becomes far more complicated through the conference process.
The release of Face to Face could not have been better timed considering some of the current debate in the Australian media over criminal sentencing. According to some commentators offenders are getting off too lightly and that’s due to the courts and judges being out of touch with community values. This attitude was proven to be a myth by the report Public judgment on sentencing: final results from the Tasmanian Jury Sentencing Study, released in February this year. In the report it cites a study of 698 jurors; 90 per cent of who felt that the sentences handed down on cases they had served on were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ appropriate. 52 per cent would have handed down lighter sentences. While this report significantly vindicates the courts it also reveals that once people know all the details behind a crime, they are less likely to respond with a knee jerk call for tougher sentencing. Once mitigating factors and background information comes to light, issuing blame and culpability can become so much more complex. This is what Face to Face is about.
Over the course of the film we discover that behind Wayne’s anger are varied factors that don’t excuse his behaviour but help to explain why he responded the way he did. Wayne is not let of the hook, but at the same time it becomes apparent that being the victim of workplace bullying over a sustained time has taken a toll that many of the people in the conference room with him shoulder a lot of responsibility for. Face to Face almost functions as a mystery film where over the course of the conference various secrets and events are revealed to dispel many of the assumptions the audience are encouraged to feel about Wayne in the beginning.
While flashbacks are successfully integrated to flesh out the back-story, Face to Face is essentially a single location film set in the conference room with all the actors together for nearly the entire film. Working in Australia again for the first time in almost 10 years, director Michael Rymer makes sure the camera is continually being repositioned around the actors to keep each shot fresh and to best channel the enormous energy that transpires from having so many strong characters and actors all in a confined space together.
While 12 Angry Men is a fitting comparison film, Face to Face also evokes the excellent 2008 Australian film Men’s Group, which had a smaller cast and more external scenes, but was still significantly comprised of group discussion scenes between the main characters. However, while Men’s Group incorporated very large amounts of improvised dialogue, Face to Face feels heavily scripted and indeed the end credits reveal that it has indeed been adapted from a stage play by David Williamson. Many of the characters certainly feel like typical Williamson characters as they take on almost archetypal characteristics to convey specific values and attitudes within Australian society. This mostly works and it allows the film to cover an extraordinary range of contemporary issues. Not only is Face to Face about workplace bullying and how we perceive a criminal act, but it also covers pack male behaviour, racism, worker exploitation, infidelity, class conflict and domestic violence. Sometimes it does come dangerously close to feeling like a checklist of important issues, but it is ultimately successful in pulling together all the threads to provide an insightful study into human behaviour, how situations spiral out of control and the shifting nature of guilt, culpability and victimisation.
Where the film is less success is the overtly theatrical dialogue that just doesn’t feel quite right on film. Especially at the start, some of the lines are over explanatory and too reliant on language to define the characters. It is blatantly a script that has come from the stage and onto the screen, seemingly with very little alteration to compensate for this transition to the more visual medium of cinema. Nevertheless, the resulting almost unintentionally stylised dialogue does settle down as the film progresses and nearly all the actors overcome these issues. Small moments of humour are also successfully weaved into the film to strategically lighten the mood when required.
Initial distracting staginess aside, Face to Face is compelling cinema that showcases a marvellous group of performers. Ford and Colosimo are the standouts, but the whole ensemble, which includes Sigrid Thornton and Matthew Newton, are also great. The emotional roller coaster that the characters go through, where they confront their misdeeds to understand how they all played a part in what happened, is genuine and authentic. Face to Face deals with a disturbingly recognisable aspect of mainstream Australian culture in its depiction of a pack tormenting a weaker element, or being complicit in the torment by doing nothing, and how this behaviour is all too often laughed off as ‘taking the piss’. Perhaps more importantly, it is convincingly optimistic that once presented with all the facts, people are capable of making compassionate and rational decisions. In a time of so much misinformation, hype and sensationalism, Face to Face offers some welcomed hope.