Who knew I would save one of the best for last? Matthew Newton’s Three Blind Mice was the last movie I saw in Toronto. I woke up early, haunted a little by spending yet another September 11 in Canada and decided to take a chance on one last movie before driving home. Boy, am I thankful; Three Blind Mice is an urgent, moving piece of cinema, a blast from the past that is somehow more alive, full of emotional precision and brilliant performances, than almost any movie I saw at Toronto this year. The story is deceptively simply; three Australian sailors spend their last night before re-deploying to Iraq painting the city of Sydney red. While most films about Iraq deal directly with the day-to-day experience of the war (often with the emotional reserve of a bad High School play), Three Blind Mice instead uses the pretext of the culture of military service and the specter of combat in a far away land to examine masculine behavior and character in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (which the film’s narrative most closely resembles) or, say, John Cassavetes’ Husbands (which most closely resembles the behavior and values of its characters). And while the proceedings have a decidedly 1970’s atmosphere to them, that might just be because we finally have a movie about soldiers that resonates with the emotional realities of youth and not the political grandstanding of old men, a movie that tempers the recklessness and idealism of its characters with a perfect dose of heartbreak and regret.
The reckless bon vivant Harry (Newton, who has the looks and appeal of a young Russell Crowe), the engaged-to-be married Dean (Toby Schmitz) and the moody, quiet Sam (a heartbreaking Ewen Leslie) arrive in their shared hotel room cracking jokes and beers, ready to spend their last night on the home front getting into any kind of trouble they can. The three sailors hit the town, swinging from lampposts (in an acknowledged nod to On The Town) and causing trouble before settling down for a drink. When Harry goads Sam into flirting with their waitress, Emma (Gracie Otto, who also edited the film), the evening takes an unexpected turn; Sam’s charms attract the girl and, after Harry and Dean find themselves fleeing a poker game and falling into a dinner with Dean’s fiancée and her parents, the sailor and the waitress’ date leads them to Sam’s parents house before they converge on the hotel room. In the meantime, Harry and Dean search for their missing comrade for fear that he may go AWOL; all three men carry a shared secret, and when it is revealed (cleverly, in stages, with each actor given a beautifully crafted moment to uncover themselves), the movie merely intensifies its emotions and its stakes, forcing us to constantly re-examine the men and their allegiances to one another.
Matthew Newton's Three Blind Mice
For all of the film’s naturalism and pitch perfect understanding of male behavior, the movie is elegantly crafted; The script is brilliantly written without ever seeming “written”, the dialogue reveals things without ever once feeling like a “big moment” and all of the tension is built on the solid foundation of emotional clarity. We understand these men so well because Newton has done a masterful job of creating and motivating them, and he and the rest of his cast do the rest. But it is the film’s visual strategy, its careful use of characters in the frame that makes the story feel alive. Newton and his cinematographer Hugh Miller have done an incredible job of maximizing the power of every single shot, always using the proximity of the actors to one another to establish and dissolve the bonds between the men or to isolate the characters from one another (and their own feelings) when the truth is finally confronted. You always know where you stand in this film despite the fact that allegiances are guaranteed to shift (thanks to a well-plotted story). Excelling on every level of cinematic craft, Three Blind Mice is a really great film, a return to character and emotional complexity without having to sacrifice story and craftsmanship.
After the screening, I spoke to a colleague who runs a small, independent distribution company and he loved the movie but was worried that, since the film dealt with Iraq (which I guess it does, in the same way that The Last Detail ostensibly dealt with Viet Nam), it would prove to be “box office poison” and “too risky.” In a way, this is less about the unpopular War in Iraq and more about shitty movies, made poorly and in haste, that have poisoned audiences against the mere mention of the War. Sure, the national appetite for movies about “bad news” is negligible, but Three Blind Mice is just the type of movie we need; a classically structured drama anchored by great acting that alleviates our anxieties by recasting them. I really hope someone snaps this film up because it is dynamite, a return to the days when not everything had to be strident, literal and overblown to make an eloquent case for our shared humanity.