The title of writer/director Craig Lahiff’s Swerve is both predictably metaphorical and assertively literal. Chronicling a series of disparate characters in an Australian outback town by the transparent name of Neverest, each one’s existence veers from its pre-set direction over the course of the film’s 90 minutes. But those divergences are very plainly set in motion by a drug dealer in a sports car making an ill-fated attempt to pass our main character on a desert highway just as the femme fatale in her own sports cars speeds toward him from the opposite direction. So, he swerves to avoid her, crashing spectacularly, the wreck taking his life and leaving the main character, Colin (David Lyons), to take the briefcase of cocaine money.
This is the leather-bound fork in the road. Toss the briefcase in the passenger seat and drive straight into early retirement or prove yourself a Good Samaritan and deliver the briefcase to the proper authorities. Colin chooses the latter, detouring to see the Neverest Sheriff, his office conveniently situated across from the town bar where suspicious locals can keep watch, to report the accident and hand over the cash. Of course, if films like Swerve have taught us anything, it is that being a Good Samaritan only leads to trouble.
The sheriff is trouble. He is Frank (Jason Clarke), and he just so happens to be married to the femme fatale, Jina (Emma Booth), partly responsible for the wreck. Before the two men can even crack a beer, Frank is inviting Colin to stay at his frilly home where Jina dives into the pool right in front of him, overtly symbolizing shimmery temptation.
Jina is essentially the only female in Neverest we see, underscoring the notion that she is all alone, a notion that her office supervisor blatantly references. “Trapped with no way out,” he taunts right to her face, the backwater locale meant to propagate the idea that all these characters want out but haven’t the means to do so and, thus, seize on the briefcase as their exit strategy. Yet, in spite of the supervisor’s taunt, neither the plotting nor the filmmaking elicit that necessary bottled-up sensation.
For instance, Lahiff chooses to provide texture by placing a Battle of Marching Bands in Neverest amidst all the noirish shenanigans, but this decision offers no payoff and counteracts the ends-of-the-earth setting by merely adding clutter. At the same time, Swerve sticks more to day than night and in doing so might have benefited with a more bleached out, sun strewn look. The color is so perfectly glossy, particularly when viewed in Blu-ray, that it winds up at odds with the supposed desperation of the characters. No one really sweats, they just glisten.
The script makes both Frank and Colin veterans of the Iraq war, providing them common ground but also allowing for yearning remembrances of a place where, despite the violence, action reigned and no two days were the same. It may be meant as motivation for getting mixed up in illegal greed but unintentionally suggests all that drives them is boredom. When Jina strips down to nothing in front of Colin and invites him into the pool, it’s as if she’s not looking for a way out so much as pining for something to do.
Perhaps something to do is all Colin seeks, perhaps not, but it’s difficult to know what’s going on behind Colin’s eyes aside from panic. This is not the traditional anti-hero slowly succumbing to the vice of fate, this is a poor schmoe caught up with a rent-a-temptress, more akin to Bill Murray’s Man Who Knew Too Little than anyone Mitchum-esque. Clarke, in a role that was filmed pre-Zero Dark Thirty breakout, at least offers glimpses in a performance that opens as garrulous bear hug before quickly giving way to a menacing death grip. Of course, he inevitably winds up as the requisite Horror Movie Monster That Cannot Be Killed, at which point the fire in his eyes just burns itself out.
Ultimately, Swerve‘s foundation is not its people nor any sort of eccentric addition to the genre, but its clockwork twists, all pointing the way toward one final pulling of the rug, a demonstration of escape’s futility. The joke is meant to be on them. But really, the joke’s on all of us.