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Tabula Rasa

Lost Things

Directed by Martin Murphy, 2003

Reviewed by Kyla Ward

Emily: Hey guys, Brad feels like he's been here before!
Gary: Great, get him in here and he can navigate!

Lost Things posterIn most horror films there comes a particular moment, experienced by both the viewer and protagonists, when one or the other realises that something is Wrong. The line has been crossed and from now on the constraints of normality do not apply. It can be as blatant as, say, the green blood on the knife that marks From Dusk Till Dawn's swing from crime thriller to outrageous vampire flick, and as subtle as the flavour of the mousse in Rosemary's Baby.

And then there's Lost Things.

Lost Things is a sparse, atmospheric film, only 80 minutes long, that applies considerable sophistry to the telling of a simple story. Four teenagers, with the end of school on the horizon, head up the New South Wales coast for a weekend of surfing, drinking and sexual tension. The boys have told their parents they are going alone; the girls have told theirs they are having a slumber party. Whose idea was the trip precisely, and why this particular stretch of coast? While the sun is high and the surf is up, who cares? It's only when the stranger appears and weird anomalies occur on the beach and in the camp that they start thinking. Remembering.

The four young protagonists are "typical" teenagers and the viewer is meant to assume a lot of their background. The performances are lively and charismatic, especially Lenka Kripac as Emily; although at times you have to wonder if teenagers would ever actually talk like that, no matter the situation. Zippo, the possibly deranged surfie, is played by Stephen Le Marquand, who has also appeared in such notable films as Two Hands (1999) and In the Winter Dark (1998). He occupies his menacing place in the landscape with a certain charm. Of course, the landscape is really another character, that interacts with the others in an eerie and effective way. It unsettles them, thwarts them and swallows them, in the great Australian tradition.

The cinematography is superb, attenuated colours and strategic pans create a milieu that slips effortlessly from the natural to the completely alien. In the midst of shifting sand and relentlessly rolling waves, eye-catching, even shocking images are created. Many of the best chills come through sheer editing. The soundtrack is also notable, combining natural sound, Unsettling Noises (an actual credit) and eerie music by Carlo Giacco. It never overpowers or signals the dramatic action, but complements it as a soundtrack should.

The details here are all-important. The props are as minimal as the background. A ring. A withered bouquet of flowers. The books and strange trappings in Zippo's nest. With a full moon, a pallid sun and comments that may or may not be jokes, the story starts coming together. And as the bits and pieces of information accrete, the tension increases, until the moment when...

This film has been criticised in some forums for being obvious. It is true, this kind of thing has been done before and the cinema-savvy viewer is likely to experience their "moment" quite early. But that is not the point. Internally, structurally, Lost Things succeeds in its play with the moment of realisation. The trouble is that the story is too simple and presented too sparsely for the viewer to really get into the game. The desire of the director and writer to strip back the story, characters and scene to essentials goes too far. For instance, it is clear Emily is extremely angry, but there must be more to it than a cryptic line in her diary and the utterance that she's into "all that new age stuff." Since her motivation is a driving force for the plot, this becomes somewhat frustrating. More seriously, a game of this kind should have rules and these are never clearly explained. The ending is satisfying of itself, but is undermined by too many unanswered questions (but then, if we were more confident of the nature of Zippo, maybe it would all fall into place).

Still, there are pleasures to be had from Lost Things. It looks beautiful, the atmosphere is powerful and it never resorts to the crass or the cheap. If this appeals, then by all means seek out the DVD. Then listen to the commentary for an entirely different experience.

 

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