Five young friends - two women and three men - set off to search for one of the world's rarest trees, the prehistoric Wollemi Pine, often referred to as a 'Monkey Puzzle' tree, whose location in the Blue Mountains of NSW is shrouded in mystery. As the friends become engulfed by the harsh terrain, they come face-to-face with their most personal secrets and fears on a journey which tests their perceptions of friendship, intimacy and the nature of their pasts.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
An acutely observed screenplay, unerring direction and outstanding performances drive this edgy and universal drama with a singularly Australian ethos. The basic premise is not original - a small group of people unexpectedly under intense pressure in a fight for survival - but it's effectively used and given a fresh angle: the Blue Mountains, just outside Sydney, where an ancient tree was discovered. The location is a weekend drive from the centre of the city, yet it quickly engulfs the unwary hiker and people can die. Many have.
The friendships are soon tested and raw wounds exposed. The dynamic of the group begins to disintegrate; Mark Forstmann observes this with a clear eye and we soon are building our own profiles of each of the characters. Details are important and well captured in both dialogue and action.
The isolated setting provides a great dramatic opportunity for entrances and exits, paranoia and life threatening danger. As the tension escalates and the fight for sheer survival becomes acute, the relationships change.
This ensemble cast gives an award winning set of performances, Justine Kerrigan's cinematography astutely captures the drama and beauty of the location without drawing attention to itself, and the film's dense n' tense tone is maintained to the very end. Ken Sallows gives a masterclass in editing, Amanda Brown's score is sparse but beautifully balanced.
Review by Louise Keller:
The mountains that initially seem majestic soon look ominous as everything goes wrong when a group of carefree friends make their way into the Blue Mountains. Their objective is to find the elusive Wollemi Pine, a rare tree that has survived against the odds. But it's more than the tree that entices the group on this journey and the journey delivers more odds than any of them could have imagined. It's an impressive debut by director Mark Forstmann, who collaborates with screenwriter Stephen Davis to bring us a tense and involving adventure in which the psychological ramifications play the biggest part.
When the film begins, we meet a carefree bunch of friends heading by car for their destination on the Easter long weekend. The atmosphere is light as they joke at the beginning of their journey. Carl (Ben Geurens) and Dylan (Ryan Johnson) are best friends who know each other well, while in the back seat, Pippa (Ella Scott Lynch) and Toni (Billie Rose Pritchard) have their own reasons for tagging along. It is a celebration of life tour - and there are specially designed t-shirts to prove it. When they pick up Zac (Socratis Otto), he is the unwelcome visitor, making the comfortable foursome into an awkward five. The carefree atmosphere turns sour as quickly as do the relationships when fun changes into a tense quest for survival.
Secrets are revealed and guilt admitted as are sexual attractions between the group's members. The performances are all excellent - the relationships especially well developed between Geurens' Carl and Johnson's Dylan, whose baggage bonds as well as triggers emotional chasms. The scenery of the rugged Blue Mountains is stunning with its jagged rocks and desolate bushland, all beautifully photographed by cinematography Justine Kerrigan, whose use of light is both sensitive and artistic. This is an involving and enjoyable film with takes us not only deep into the Blue Mountains, but deeper on emotional and spiritual levels. Tense and satisfying, the film entices us - just like the elusive Wollemi Pine entices its characters further than they may have intended.
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MONKEY PUZZLE (M)
CAST: Ryan Johnson, Ben Geurens, Ella Scott Lynch, Billie Rose Prichard, Socratis Otto
PRODUCER: Tamara Popper
DIRECTOR: Mark Forstmann
SCRIPT: Mark Forstmann, Stephen Davis
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Justine Kerrigan
EDITOR: Ken Sallows
MUSIC: Amanda Brown
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Totem
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: The Edge, Katoomba (NSW): October 22; Chauvel, Sydney: October 23; Palace George, St Kilda, Melbourne: October 30, 2008 - other venues later