The career of Xavier Samuel can best be summarised with the expression “One for you. One for me”. Arguably the best of the current batch of Australian exports to Hollywood, he oscillates between making his name internationally (The Twilight Sage: Eclipse, Fury, and Love & Friendship), and returning to the shores of his native Australia to support the local industry in between all his large profile outings.
The latest of these soirées in the local industry is the film that opened MIFF 2016. The Death and Life of Otto Bloom is a fictionalised documentary that shares a lot of DNA with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Otto Bloom (Samuel) is found sitting in a homeless shelter with no memory of how he got there. He’s a very good looking young man who seems too well dressed to be hanging around such a place. His amnesia doesn’t pass, leading him to be examined by Dr Ada Fitzgerald (Rachel Ward), a neuropsychologist who is charmed by his softly spoken nature and intelligent outlook. Bloom then makes an incredible admission: he experiences time in reverse; our past is his future and vice-versa. The claim seems ridiculous but his extraordinary talent for predicting things just before they happen and knowing things that he couldn’t have possibly known mean that he might just be telling the truth.
Director Cris Jones has created a very interesting tale which is as brain-bending as it is charming. It’s always lovely to see an Australian film pushing boundaries and exploring new and interesting topics, and the fact that this was made using the MIFF Premier Fund says a lot about the local industry. Specifically it demonstrates its desire to make something different and to try new, exciting things. It would just be good if Australians occasionally went and supported them at the cinema.
The concept isn’t original; the aforementioned Benjamin Button has essentially the same premise and it isn’t far from how Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan experienced the flow of time. Yet the pseudo documentary approach does grace it with merit because it works like a charm.
It’s clear that Jones, who both wrote and directed the film, has done his research. One of the talking heads is John Gaden playing an astrophysicist who tries to explain Bloom’s unique condition in the kind of expositional jargon that seems to require a degree in quantum mechanics to fully comprehend. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if a wall of Jones’ living room was covered in hastily scribbled post-it notes connected with red string during the writing process. Upon leaving the cinema, don’t be surprised if you catch yourself thinking back over the film and wondering if any or all of it made sense.
It’s been a while since Rachel Ward, a great local director as well as actor, has appeared on screen. Her presence is always welcome and it’s a fantastic little detail that Matilda Brown – Ward’s real life daughter – plays her in the flashback scenes. Samuel delivers like he always does. He clearly is a talented young man whose coming career will be a pleasure to witness; his outlandish good looks will undoubtably be an asset. (By the way, I personally can confirm he’s as good looking off the screen as he is on because I’m 95% certain I once sat next to him on the train).
It’s fortunate that the film’s form and performances are enough to make this a satisfying experience because everything else is undeniably flawed. A film barely over eighty minutes shouldn’t feel like it’s dragging. One plot point revealed in the third act which is suppose to be romantic is just creepy and Bloom’s condition makes less and less sense the more you think about it. If he knows what’s going to happen but then immediately forgets it the moment it happens then why does he make no attempt to stop international tragedies? Why can’t he stop himself from making stupid decisions regarding women? And wouldn’t this completely throw off the nature of cause and effect? MY BRAIN HURTS.
There’s also a climactic scene where Bloom makes a speech to a packed out audience that the film assures us was a worldwide sensation but just comes off like the kind of phoney intellectual drivel that a university student who just smoked a joint and listened to five minutes of Alan Watts would write down.
All in all, The Death and Life of Otto Bloom is worth a watch but isn’t the best outcome of this fascinating premise. The performances of Samuel and Ward manage to salvage the drama and at its best the film will leave you sitting and pondering the nature of time and reality. Flaws aside, this is the kind of low key but interesting premise which Australian cinema does well and will hopefully be supported by a local audience.
The Death and Life of Otto Bloom screens exclusively at Cinema Nova from 16th March.