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Dirt Music Lacks the Sung Binder For Its Sorrow

Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

This is going to sound unsophisticated in rhetorical philosophy, but we weren’t really meant to wear shoes everywhere we go. Our animalistic roots used to have us traveling our terrains by our bare feet. It’s primitive and odd to a point, but there’s something to having the earth between your toes. Watch Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman or Paul Bratter in Barefoot in the Park. There’s freeing comfort to be found there. Pluck a few strings to it and you have your own nirvana. The free spirits in the film Dirt Music are drawn by that hope of inspiration and liberation.

For anyone over the age of five-years-old who doesn’t have “The Gravel Foot” anymore, we know not all-natural surfaces are easy and lush. The sensation of each pace toughens and prepares the heels and toes for the next one. Such is life as well. The literal and figurative barefoot steps of the characters from Tim Winton’s celebrated novel have tread over the hard grounds of loss and regret. The developed calluses mix with the ever-present dirt for messy lifestyles. Any songs present croon to that lamentation. Alas, the titular melodies advertised to break down the melodrama blow away weakly with the wind.

Three pairs of aching dogs inhabit that mature headspace and emotional condition of Dirt Music as they occupy the stunning topography and oceanic expanses of Western Australia. Scottish transplant Kelly Macdonald’s Georgie Jutland is the unhappy wife of legit Aussie David Wenham’s local honcho fisherman Jim Buckridge. He is the town champ on the open water who throws his clout, ale pints, and philandering gaze around with dominance. Jim is the provider of finery apart from the basic locals, making Georgie his younger trophy wife. She is a midday wine-drinker who takes midnight swims to clear her head and refresh her body. Georgie is looking for outlets away from her stuffy and discarded home life.

Georgie approaches a shirtless Lu for a kiss.
Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

The intriguing one she finds is the scruffy, dog-loving drifter Lu Fox, played by American pretender Garrett Hedlund. He lives simple and scratches a modest existence poaching Jim’s lobster pots for food and finances. With (too) quick and smoldering chemistry, Georgie shags Lu during a getaway to Perth before even learning his name. Their spiral begins an affair that upsets the upstanding Jim. Underlying interconnections come to light as this triangle learns the gravity of their opposing desires.

The emotionally thirsty Georgie asks many observant questions in probing the insoluble Lu. The soft-spoken man asks the woman in return “How do adults do this? We’re not teenagers.” In a physical affair, sex can be a comfort, no doubt, but real intimacy is more than that. What bond Lu and Georgie is that they both know what it means to truly touch someone. Emotional touch furthers the tryst.

All three lead characters tramp with some measure of private misery and self-appointed failed responsibility. Those movements have a wrecking ache. Jim lost his previous wife and has bullying mistakes on his heart. Georgie feels like she lost her youthful vigor in settling for Jim’s domestic comfort. Lu, a former troubadour who used to make “dirt music,” has it the worst. He lost his musician family Darkie and Sal (George Mason and folk musician Julia Stone) and his young niece Bird (Ava Caryofyllis) in a tragic accident. Lu still has stark, haunting visions of Bird which push him to retreat town for his own grieving and rustic isolation. That trek sends Georgie and Jim after him.

Those opening two paragraphs are the mature headspace and emotional condition of Dirt Music. The narrative that follows from Wonder screenwriter Jack Thorne is as wayward as the hearts involved. The struggles have a distance to them for the viewer. Winton’s best-selling novel has been sought after for quite some time, encircling the interested likes of Nicole Kidman, Rachel Weisz, Heath Ledger, and Russell Crowe over the years. Director Gregor Jordan (Ned Kelly, Buffalo Soldiers) found the window to get this made and assembled trustworthy talent. Bigger names would have made this a glamour project.

Jim and Georgie share neighboring seats aboard a plane.
Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

 

Instead, the resolute actors commit to the layers of their performances. It would have been very easy to make Wenham the one-note belligerent and combative spouse, but his portion of the hurt adds consequence. A character like Lu has become the gravelly usual for Hedlund, who has made quite the recent career playing to the target of soulful disquiet. The strongest, without question, is Macdonald. The spreading of her character’s fractured wings and her dedication to seeking better love comes through in the actress’s svelte strength.

The geography of the Dampier Peninsula and Esperance areas of the southern continent (secured by location manager Brett Dowson) traversed high and low by cinematographer Sam Chiplin colors the solitude. Chiplin’s lenses are gentle and put brightness to the dark human flaws. The odyssey of it all has visual draw. The same goes for its signature sound.

Darkie, Lu, and Sal play instruments and sing on their porch.
Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Dirt Music’s soundtrack is peppered with often lovely balladry supervised by Kle Savidge and backed by a still score from Craig Armstrong. Hedlund (Country Strong) is no stranger to music and supports the signing of Mason and Stone admirably. With toes tapping the loam, there is a longing tranquility to this tone. Worries fade and sadness lifts. Music is a release. However, the strength of this film’s songs cannot stir the heavier human drama. If music is meant to be the binder, there’s not nearly enough of it.

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson" and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. He is also weekly movie trends columnist and occasional podcast contributor for the "Feelin' Film" podcast. As an middle school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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