The first few minutes of The Hard Word look like lots of convict movies. A squad of tough prisoners are balling in slow motion, chain-link fence framing and a handheld camera evoking a slightly grainy Nike commercial. A hard guitar track thrums in the background, a fight breaks out, guards blows whistles and pull out their bats. Eventually, the camera makes its way to another convict, grim-faced and calculating, observing the melee from the library, where he shelves books.
This would be Dale (a scruffed-up Guy Pearce), eldest of the Twentyman brothers. It so happens that hotheaded Shane (Joel Edgerton) and sweet-natured Mal (Damien Richardson) are doing time at the same prison, for armed robbery. Bored inside—there’s only so much enlightenment Dale can glean from multiple readings of the Bible and Portnoy’s Complaint—the team is just waiting for the next gig. Arranged by their ultrashady lawyer, Frank (Robert Taylor), it’s right up their alley, armored truck robbery.
Job-wise, the brothers are aces: Dale plans all moves to the last fraction of a second, and all adhere to the primary injunction, that no one gets hurt. Personal-lives-wise, they’re slightly less assured: Shane’s a little psychotic (both evidenced and undermined as he seduces his extremely willing prison shrink [Rhondda Findleton]); Mal’s more inclined to butchering, as was their father’s business, than toward scaring and stealing from people; and Dale’s fetching, bleached-blond wife Carol (Rachel Griffiths) is screwing Frank. While it’s obvious enough that this has been going on for some time, Dale seems disturbed to spot it (as the brothers are carted off for the armored vehicle job, he notes Frank lighting wifey’s cigarette: cue sign of suspicion, that is, the frame lingers on Dale’s dour face through car window).
Though the robbery goes off well, Frank scuttles the brothers’ intended escape, and instead has them picked up on non-existent charges and sent back to prison, where they stew and grumble. When Carol comes to visit Dale, she performs as a typical seductress, smearing her “I want you, baby” heat on the window between them, even making a smiley face of it. Dale, however, is having none of this come-on, fixated on the possibility that she’s cheating; their reflections show through one another throughout the shot-reverse-shotting of their conversation, indicating mutual duplicity. They’re so used to using one another and anyone else who gets in their way, they can’t imagine another sort of involvement. She denies any wrongdoing, and he can’t decide whether he wants to believe her.
It’s the wanting that drives everyone’s interactions in The Hard Word. No one is capable of generosity or trust: they all know too much. Figuring that he has to get out in order to find out Dale threatens Frank until the lawyer comes up with a scheme to finish off this increasing headache once and for all (Frank seems to believe that Carol’s devotion to him, or at least his money, is for real). This involves stealing the betting monies at The Melbourne Cup, accompanied by a fourth man, the plainly dangerous Tarzan (Dorian Nikona), also the only black man in sight.
A standard caper movie, The Hard Word is less interested in plotty hijinks or even clever editing and zap-pans than it is in characters, to the point of near-abstraction. This makes them difficult as points of identification. Writer-director Scott Roberts says his conception of the brothers was inspired by the familial relations of tv’s Bonanza: each has a specific role, established, more or less, by his temperament “Dale is the smart one,” says Shane, “Mal’s the good one, and I’m the fuck-up”). Shane’s matinee-idol-style looks hardly make up for his often ugly immaturity; Mal’s pleasantness is tempered by his capacity for cruelty when called for; and Dale’s jutty-jawed resolve is complicated by Pearce’s nervy performance, his glowering and agitated refusal to give in to viewer desires for leading-mannishness. He can be pretty, certainly, but here he’s muddled his diction and bruised his eyes, so that Dale remains distant, taciturn and grumpy.
His anger may be well disciplined or well repressed, and it might even be genuine. Aside from his deathless loyalty to his brothers, Dale doesn’t have much investment in any of his relationships or his endeavors, aside from a vaguely macho desire to beat the system, the way noir heroes like to do. This loyalty throws something of a wrench into his relationship with Carol, as the boys—whose experience with girls ranges from a nipple-suckling sort of womanizing (Shane) to none at all (Mal), tend to think she’s up to something, specifically, that she’ll throw them all over for cash money.
As Dale and Carol’s relationship becomes increasingly vexed, the film grants you access to scenes he can’t know about, as when she puts off the slimy Frank. Perhaps she’s having second thoughts (he’s so sludgy), but then again, maybe it’s part of a broader plan, either on her part or Dale’s. Carol appears at first to embody trouble of the femme fatale-ish variety, but she’s eventually messier than this stereotype suggests, at once ambitious, resolute, and visibly uncertain. This makes her nearly as opaque as her man, which means that their serial betrayals, while predictable in a convict movie, also don’t occur precisely when or how you’d expect.