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BROTHERS' NEST

★★★½

MA15+, 97 minutes

Brothers' Nest is a low-budget Australian film that's either a very dark comedy or a black-hearted thriller with some laughs, depending on your perspective. It reunites the Jacobson brothers, who gave us Kenny in 2006, but there's none of that film's genial view of the world.

Jeff and Terry don't really like each other, but understand each other's strengths and weaknesses.

Photo: Label

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This one's an Aussie version of a comedy of violence – somewhere between Blood Simple and Fargo – but it's more Leyland brothers than Coen brothers. The film explores the Australian character with modesty and doggedness, rather than hyperbole.

In a way that makes it authentically Australian, rather than just imitative. And that does connect it to Kenny, a film that made a hero out of a bloke who made his living disposing of other people's poo.

The two brothers of the title are men of large girth and modest achievement – two great pretenders who are about to do something unthinkable and seemingly out-of-character. In a Coen brothers' script, the bad guys usually know they're bad: it's their way of life. Brothers' Nest is a slightly more melancholy kind of thriller, about the wounds of family – which may be why its tone is somewhat unpredictable and uneven.

Two large blokes ride bicycles down a misty country road before dawn. They throw the bikes over a fence and shoulder them across a damp paddock to a rambling old farmhouse, surrounded by wrecked cars and farm machinery.

The brothers are men of large girth and modest achievement.

Photo: Label

Jeff (Clayton Jacobson) is the elder brother, the planner. Terry, known inevitably as Tezza (Shane Jacobson) is far from convinced. He's not the killer type. Neither is Jeff: he just thinks he is. It takes some time to work out what they're doing, as they don orange forensic overalls, plastic gloves and head-torches to enter what we quickly work out is the house where they grew up. If the house is empty, who are they going to kill?

Once at the farmhouse, the action never leaves. That's one indication the film was conceived as a low-budget production, rather than one that has been forced to reduce its ambitions.

With Clayton Jacobson directing, as well as co-starring, and only three supporting roles (cast superbly, with Kim Gyngell, Lynette Curran and Sarah Snook), I sensed a sort of resignation. The Jacobsons have had earlier films fall over after 10 years of hard work. This one was going to get made, if they had to strip it to the bone and find a new way to finance it.

This they did, by inviting small investments from cinema operators they met during the successful run of Kenny. As I write, the Jacobsons are touring rural Victoria and NSW in a big black bus, going from one country cinema "premiere" to the next, delivering the kind of personalised roadshow that might just see the film earn its money back (less than $2 million, according to press reports). I hope it works.

The film doesn't have the feel-good humour of Kenny, but it does have a quirky pathology that keeps developing. It's less a film about murder than about brothers, and to some extent, parents.

The Jacobsons did not write the script; Jaime Brown wrote it for them. Whether he wrote it about them is harder to decode, but the fraternal dynamics are the major asset and source of comedy. Jeff is the bossy older brother who thinks he's a master planner; Tezza has just gone along since they were kids, trying his best to stay out of trouble. They don't really like each other, but understand each other's strengths and weaknesses – mostly the latter.

Clayton Jacobson directs the film along a precarious line, in terms of tone. He wants the laughs, but they're sardonic, slightly rueful, and dry as dust. He's perhaps more concerned with capturing the pain of the brother's relationships, not just with each other but with their mother, played by the evergreen Curran, clutching a Zimmer frame.

The pain stifles the laughter somewhat, until the film turns bloody. It's a risky strategy, because audiences associate the Jacobson brand with deadpan comedy, rather than dark dramatic comedy.

Brothers' Nest is reasonably satisfying as a film about the weird passions of family. It has a certain integrity as that, even if it's not a thigh-slapper.

Paul Byrnes

Paul Byrnes was director of the Sydney Film Festival from 1989 to 1998. He has been a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald for 20 years. In 2007, he was awarded the Geraldine Pascall prize for critical writing, the highest award in the Australian media for critics in any genre.

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