‘Down Under’ Is the Skin-Crawling, Bleakly Hilarious Race Riot Comedy That 2016 Deserves [Fantastic Fest Review]
It’s a shame that Down Under exists in the first place, but because we live in this particular world at this particular time, it can’t help but feel necessary. It’s not a movie we want as much as it is a movie we need, an angry howl of pain and confusion that goes down like a bitter pill. But a spoonful of comedy helps the medicine go down, because writer/director Abe Forsythe‘s pitch-black comedy is one of the funniest movies of the year, tempering so much rage and pain with stoner jokes, slapstick, and a cast of characters who earn your affection despite themselves.
Set in the aftermath of the Cronulla race riots that rocked Sydney, Australia in 2005, Down Under follows two groups of fictional doofuses on a collision course. On one side, you have a gang of young white friends who are sick and tired of Muslim immigrants taking over their beaches. On the other, you have a group of Lebanese immigrants who are sick and tired of being pushed around. Both sides are armed and both sides are hopelessly dim and fueled entirely by macho rage.
Making a comedy about racial violence feels like a recipe for disaster, but Forsythe and his cast walk this tightrope and make it look effortless. The easiest comparison is Chris Morris’ Four Lions, which mined comedy from a team of bumbling terrorists, but it is also the most accurate. Like that film, Down Under is very funny without losing sight of the bigger picture. It never trivializes its subject matter, knowing when to press pause on the laughs and let the darkness and pain and tragedy of this material to wash over you. And Down Under also knows when to meld horror and comedy into single moments, delivering gags so silly and so sad that they dare you to laugh.
If Down Under has another cinematic cousin, it would be the work of Jody Hill, who has mastered the art of mining comedy from toxic masculinity and the victims it leaves in its wake. Forsythe shoots his characters with a deadpan eye, holding back and letting their idiotic behavior speak for itself. No one winks at the camera as they’re loading a trunk full of a dozen canisters of gasoline just in case or showing off their increasingly absurd Ned Kelly tattoos or doing donuts in their crappy cars or pausing their hunt for immigrants so they can pick up some shawarma. These characters, so ably performed by some very funny people, are portrayed as real people, making their irrational decisions, their racism, and their increasingly poor decisions made just to serve their worst impulses all the more horrifying…and all the more hilarious.
And there is also an incredible recurring joke about a bad mixtape. The margins surrounding the film are chock-full of tiny pleasures.
Down Under doesn’t handle its subject matter with care. It doesn’t wear gloves and goggles. It takes the subject of race relations, dips it in gasoline, and molds it into shape near an open flame. It wants you to get angry. It wants to enrage you. And it wants you to laugh. Because recognizing the absurdity of this situation, realizing that there is nothing more absurd than angry men going to war over the color of their skin, feels vital. Comedy is our great weapon: aim it at hatred and watch every excuse dissolve before your very eyes. In a year dominated by ugly politics, Down Under feels devastating and relevant (there’s even an extended exchange about building a wall). It wants us to laugh, to recognize the absurdity of this all, so we do not become the joke on screen.
/Film Rating: 8.0 out of 10