Three Blind Mice
Ewen Leslie, Toby Schmitz, Matthew Newton
(IFC Films; US theatrical: 18 Mar 2009 (Limited release); 2008)
The sailor on shore leave - is there another war-time tenet as stereotypical and suspect as that. We all understand the basics of those enlisted in the Naval Corps.: long months at sea, limited sexual stimulation, a girl in every port, a tattoo to commemorate said conquests, and a mouth as dirty as a grease covered galley floor. Much has changed about the mariner returning home after a taste of battle. No longer are we witness to antiquated On The Town hijinx or, in reverse post modern journeys into perfunctory private Hells ala The Last Detail. No, in the hands of Australian novice Matthew Newton, our macho midshipmen have more on their plate then sewing a few wild oats. Over the course of one fateful night, our Three Blind Mice will end up making decisions that will redefine their lives forever.
When we first meet Sam, Dean, and Harry, they are checking into an Ozzie hotel for the night. Their plans are simple - freshen up, hit the town, pull some birds, and be back in time to ship out in the morning. Yes, after an already overlong tour of duty in the Middle East, the boys are returning in relatively short order. This makes Sam very nervous. Horrifically abused as part of a shipboard standoff gone horrible wrong, he’s actually thinking about going AWOL. Yet by doing so, he realizes he will disappoint his mom and his aging grandfather. As the trio take in a poker game at a local pizzeria, Sam befriends a flirtatious waitress named Emma. She doesn’t understand all the duties and dilemmas facing the young cadet. She just thinks a man in a uniform is sexy. Later on, during a dinner with his girlfriend’s parents, Dean will deliver some stunning news.
Like a younger, hipper Ricky Gervais, Matthew Newton comes across as an odd choice to make a subtle, character driven drama. His entire personality, wrapped up effortlessly in his performance as the dashing and devious Harry, seems better suited for something hilarious, not heartfelt, and occasionally, horrifying. Yet that’s the kind of creative deception the 32 year old uses to keep Three Blind Mice from becoming just another worn out ‘War is Hell’ epistle. True, the tale he chooses to tell as writer, director, and star has been done dozens of times before, the same simmering secrets coming forward at the usual inopportune times, but thanks to the cultural backdrop (Australia) and the interesting choices made by his cast, we gladly relish in the recognizability. This is indeed a talky trip through a group of individual’s inner demons, but Newton makes the journey engaging and quite effective.
Of the three male leads, Harry is clearly the center. He is the good time guy who will instantly sell you down the river once his shtick has been uncovered. We learn this during a fascinating card game where our sailors act like simps to milk locals out of hundreds of hard-earned dollars. Looking lax and nonchalant, Harry keeps the table off center by offering unusual tales of military ethos and battle weariness. When one of his marks demands to know his technique, the fool’s façade drops, and suddenly we see the manipulation behind the military man. Something similar happens to Dean when he decides to reveal what really happened to Sam during a critical night onboard ship. It’s the concept of menace behind the mask that fuels Three Blind Mice‘s fascination.
The trouble for some will come from Sam, the newly minted officer with a back full of scars to indicate his troubled professional past. As essayed with calm cowardice by Ewen Leslie, we’re not sure whether we should feel sorry for this victim or cringe at the reasons for his obvious outcast state. During a definitive moment where he calls his mother to explain his plans, the actor literally falls apart before our eyes. His interactions with Emma aren’t much better. He’s never comfortable in his skin, incapable of taking the numerous lustful hints from his red-headed pick-up. As the movie meanders toward its decisions and denouements, we wonder if Newton has more up his sleeve. The answer, oddly enough, is as unusual as the film itself.
Still, there remains an arm’s length quality that comes with such a slow, layered reveal. While our mainstream addled brain might scream for a quicker uncovering of the truth, Newton is not out to please the faithful. Instead, he wants viewers to think, to sit back within the confines of this complex situation and struggle to decipher which side you stand on. Are you part of Sam and his painful process of denial? Or do you side with Harry and Dean, willing to follow demented directives in order to maintain station? Of course, such questions have also plagued the military movie since cinematic soldiers first took up arms. But Three Blind Mice reminds us that men are typically at the center of such quandaries, and their very humanity make the resolution tricky - and sometimes, terrifying.
As a presence both behind and in front of the camera, it’s clear that Matthew Newton has a bright and brilliant future ahead in film. His demeanor may seem like he takes nothing very serious, but his sense of story, character, narrative drive, and plot dynamics indicate otherwise. Three Blind Mice is a very cautious, often serious clash between the truth and a lie, the cover-up and the conspiracy that required the cabal in the first place. By the end, nothing has really changed. Each man has simply certified his place in the precarious pecking order that is existence - especially in the Navy. Gone are the dates with golden hearted hooker. Missing are the well-meaning bar fights were steam is let off before the real killing occurs. In their place are mental challenges and undeniable moral predicaments. Oddly enough, in Newton’s world, the resolution is more harmful than any tour of duty.