Jack (Bill Hunter) is an aimless drifter who runs into Gary (Gary Foley), an Aborigine at a loose end after his marriage breaks up. They steal a beat up old Pontiac and begin a journey through some backroads towards the coast, picking up another aborigine, Joe (Zac Martin), a French hitch-hiker (Terry Camilleri), and a disaffected service station attendant, Anna (Julie Mcgregor), at a remote petrol station. Drinking and swearing, yarning and quarrelling, the carload arrives at a remote beach, but Anna decides to take off leaving the men, and their rifles, stranded - until they discover a parked Mercedes with the keys in it. But the find leads to tragedy.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Barely feature length at 57 minutes, Backroads is a truly impressive first film from Phillip Noyce, who went on to make the multi award winning Newsfront a year later. Backroads is a road movie that fires on all cylinders: it's funny, it's political, it's engaging and the characters are tangibly real in a definitive landscape - photographed by the great Russell Boyd.
John Emery's script, enhanced by the director and cast, is astringent and authentic and Noyce displays his cinematic chops in abundance. For instance, he shoots a sequence inside the travelling car in which the front seat conversation between Jack and Gary is like one scene, and in the backseat, Anna and the French Jean Claude are starting to kiss and pet. Noyce pulls off this juggle with great verve, using two basic camera set ups that complement the sense that we are a fly on the side window. This is virtuoso filmmaking.
The film has many other pleasures, including the outstanding performances of the five travellers. Each actor delivers totally authentic characters within the context of the film and the interaction between them all gives us great dramatic satisfaction.
The remastering of the film for DVD in as high a digital quality as possible is a demonstration of the value of new technology; the original 4:3, 16 mm images were reframed for the 16:9 widescreen format, and the film was regraded. This was done after digitising the interpositive, and the finished work was cleaned up frame by frame. (You can get the full info on this on the DVD in the Picture Restoration chapter, which also shows a comparison with the original and restored version in a 2 minute clip.)
Backroads is now accessible in an easily approachable form for generations to come. It's important in the context of Australian cinema, but it's importance is overshadowed by its pungent power and its haunting quality.
Adding depth to the film's themes and context to its making, Phillip Noyce, has recorded a wide ranging 32 minute interview (in March 2002) with Gary Foley - albeit Foley is not part of the final cut, as Noyce's answers are edited into a detailed monologue.
The chapter called Russell Boyd interview is actually a rarely seen shot inside the DVD commentary recording studio, and a conversation with Boyd and Russell about the camera work, the lighting and Boyd's career. It's edited out of the commentary track the three of them recorded.
The Gary Foley piece is a straight 23 minute piece to camera, the highlight of which is Foley's account of how he and Noyce went to the Aboriginal communities at Bourke and Brewarrina for permission to film there. And Foley reckons Backroads is the best film ever made by a non-aborigine about the Aboriginal experience.
As we have come to expect from Noyce, the audio commentary is incredibly comprehensive, filled with detail and insights and revelations. He leads the trio, with Foley and Boyd providing great support. Anecdotal and humorous, the commentary track completes the in depth package of extras on this marvellous DVD.
September 9, 2004
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BACKROADS: DVD (M)
CAST: Bill Hunter, Gary Foley, Zac Martin,Terry Camilleri, Julie McGregor, Essie Coffey
PRODUCER: Phillip Noyce
DIRECTOR: Phillip Noyce
SCRIPT: John Emery, Phillip Noyce
RUNNING TIME: 57 minutes
PRESENTATION: Remastered, 16:9; DD 2.0 & 5.1;
SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary by Phillip Noyce; interviews with Noyce, Gary Foley, Russell Boyd (DoP); restoration of a scene, comparison of original with restored; DVD ROM features: script; original inspiration short story ; Noyce biography excerpt
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
DVD RELEASE: August 18, 2004