1982 / 1.85:1 / Street Date May 28, 2018
Starring Bruno Lawrence, Anna Jemison
Cinematography by Graeme Cowley
Directed by Roger Donaldson
Smash Palace is the wryly grandiose name given to a New Zealand junkyard run by Al Shaw, a tight-lipped workaholic up to his elbows in axle grease and resentment. It also describes the wreck Al has made of his own marriage.
At the beginning of Roger Donaldson’s 1982 film, Shaw and his wife Jacqui are already nearing the end of their rocky alliance – both work at the family business but the family is all Al’s – Jacqui has finally come to terms that she wants no part of it.
Shaw, a burly pub crawler with deep set eyes and the thinnest of skins is an occasional auto jockey who appreciates a finely-tuned V8 but understands little about the niceties of married life. Jacqui is tired of Al’s brooding and sick of their circumstances, a dead-end existence anchored to a home that’s not much more than a shanty mired in a sea of trashed Pontiacs.
The battle lines are drawn in that heap of metal; Jacqui stares out her back window and is confronted by “a graveyard” – Al sees home, sweet home.
Their only moments of tranquility are inspired by their little daughter Georgie – but after eight years of glowering silence and contentious sex that looks more like assault, Jacqui leaves Al and takes the child with her. Building up a steady boil for those same eight years, Al snaps – he kidnaps Georgie and heads into the bush.
Al is the New Zealand cousin to one of Bruce Springsteen’s dead-end anti-heroes, fighting sleep behind the wheel at 2 AM, lost to themselves and whatever family they’ve left behind. Bruno Lawrence, a transplanted rock drummer from West Sussex, effortlessly embodies that man, his compassion disguised by machismo and his common sense betrayed by a quick temper (Lawrence brought so much of himself to the film that Donaldson gave him a writing credit).
Al’s saving grace is the sardonic humor that bubbles up in the most dire situations – including the film’s finale, a violent confrontation with the man who he believes stole his wife and child.
Sitting on a railroad track with a shotgun wired to the neck of his former friend and current hostage, Al relaxes in the driver’s seat as a wickedly fast train barrels down on them. Al is finally able to meet life on his own terms, displaying a final middle finger to his tormentors and the world in general.
Donaldson funded the film through the New Zealand Film Commission, a humiliating experience in itself: the project was rejected until the commission was reminded that it was Donaldson’s break through drama, Sleeping Dogs, that helped forge the existence of the commission.
His direction of Smash Palace is a master class in invasive filmmaking – Donaldson stations his camera so close to the actors in their most intimate moments that the audience feels implicated in an unwanted threesome.
The actors are uniformly fine – Anna Jemison’s naturalistic and low key performance reveals Jacqui’s ambiguity about her own feelings and the impulsive streak that made Al a proper soulmate, at least at the beginning of their marriage. A few of the other actors, including Jacqui’s reluctant beau Keith Aberdein and Greer Robson (little Georgie all grown up) are interviewed in the 50 minute documentary included on the new Blu ray release from Arrow.
Arrow’s transfer of Graeme Cowley’s unsentimental cinematography looks perfectly appropriate (Donaldson was not interested in capturing the glory of a New Zealand sunset but revealing the mystery behind Jacqui’s melancholy smile). Here’s the official run-down of the disc’s extras via Arrow’s site:
Commentary by writer-director Roger Donaldson and stunt driver Steve Millen
The Making of Smash Palace, a 51-minute documentary on the film’s production featuring interviews with Donaldson, actor Keith Aberdein, filmmaker Geoff Murphy and others
Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips