Joel Edgerton fascinates me, in part because it is unlikely any of us were introduced to him in the same way. I remember him in Animal Kingdom, but that film was overflowing with so many talented performers that his role did not leave as distinct an impression. But look at the other films you may have seen him in: Kinky Boots, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Warrior. This is not the filmography of a performer interested in getting tied down to a specific type.
Yet, he has a talent for acting in crime dramas as well as writing them, which is most evident in 2008's excellent neo-noir The Square. There's something in his demeanor that lends well to the kind of dark alley drunkenness that leads to violence and foolish mistakes. I'm not the only one who recognizes this. Wish You Were Here reunites Edgerton with Kieran Darcy-Smith, switching up their roles a bit with Edgerton taking the lead billing and Darcy-Smith behind the camera as well as scripting the film. Darcy-Smith sees that same something in Edgerton too.
Watch the way Edgerton imbues his character, Dave, with a steadily escalating panic. He doesn't let him scream, or throw things. The corner of his mouth will start to droop, his breathing noticeably heavy, one eye will drift off all its own, his hands search for something - anything - to keep occupied. He is the panicked working class, who knows that he has made horrible mistakes that are way above his pay grade, and lacks the mental capabilities to do something about them. His helplessness, both at his situation and for the love his wife, are the constant palpable edge that drives Wish You Were Here.
What you may notice is that I'm studiously avoiding the plot, and there are a few reasons for that. The first is that Darcy-Smith, with fellow screenwriter and costar Felicity Price, have constructed an elaborate puzzle out of Dave's predicament. The story is told in fragmented pieces in a nonlinear way, trying to fit together pieces that make more sense in emotional sequence than in chronological fashion. That is not an easy undertaking, and that the film almost pulls it off is a testament to how good Darcy-Smith may become as a director.
But the plot, as it unravels, is not as worthy as the craft put into it. Dave's problem is that he went out on a spontaneous holiday with his wife Alice (Price), her sister Steph (Teresa Palmer), and Steph's new boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr), and during the trip Jeremy mysteriously vanishes. The last thing they all remember is having a grand night of drinking, dancing, and a bit of ecstasy. Whatever happened is weighing most heavily on Dave, but there are secrets involving everyone, all about the way little connections with someone who isn't your partner can feel like the biggest betrayal.
Each scene another puzzle piece is shifted into place, eventually granting an answer at the end. But the ambitious structure demands something more elusive, not just a final piece getting into position so we can all throw our hands up in celebration at solving the movie. When the film ends the big reveal feels arbitrary, almost like anything could have happened to cause Jeremy's disappearance and it would not have changed the film at all. The focus is just slightly misplaced, because the intrigue isn't around the mystery of Jeremy, but those connections that become betrayals.
This is where Wish You Were Here succeeds brilliantly because Edgerton is not the only one putting on a performance clinic. As his wife, Felicity Price creates her character out of a space that is motherly not out of desire, but out of necessity. When her perceptions are challenged she sinks to a level of self-destruction that is more careless and cruel than Dave's. All that transpires is because they each get a quick glance of the other enjoying someone's company far more than they should.
Darcy-Smith's direction plays with this very well. The fragmented narrative reinforces those moments where things change ever so slightly but come close to shattering the trust that they've come to take for granted. Working with cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin, they create images of perpetual self-reflection, where every thing that you know is challenged in a new angle. The hot, dirty party that opens the film follows them no matter where they go, where even the gray environs of an office building have their own harsh glare.
It's a great looking, fantastically acted film with a superb premise that doesn't quite pull it off. Sometimes it's better to leave our minds wondering at what might have been. But even with a dissatisfying conclusion, there is a lot that will leave Wish You Were Here lingering in your mind long after the end is forgotten.
Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith.
Screenplay written by Kieran Darcy-Smith and Felicity Price.
Starring Joel Edgerton and Felicity Price.