Editor’s note: Three Blind Mice is part of a collaboration between IFC and SXSW, bringing selected titles from the Festival to TV via “IFC Festival Direct,” on demand. Available as of March 18th.
In the Australian Navy, asserts Harry (Matthew Newton), “you need permission to grow a beard.” He’s obtained such permission, he says, by way of explaining his scruffy face to a crew of new acquaintances and fellow cardplayers. That these hard-talking toughs are unimpressed — but his story or his look — hardly bothers Harry. He and Dean (Toby Schmitz) are out on the town one last time before they’re deploying to “the Gulf,” and he’s determined to show off his manly man-ness.
He has ample opportunity to perform it in Three Blind Mice, which follows the adventures of three 20something sailors in Sydney for one night. Written and directed by Newton, the film is part standard male-bonding tale and part deconstruction of same. Working through their own mutual commitments and recent, still-raw betrayals, the boys are also figuring out what it means to be military and masculine, as these are related but not quite equivalent measures.
Harry, Dean, and Sam (Ewen Leslie) enter the film in a wide low angle shot, dumping their gear in the hotel room they’ve taken, in order to collapse, complain, and ready themselves for the evening. No sooner has Sam disappeared into the shower than his friends start talking about him, contending that “Someone snitched on him,” leading to an apparently harrowing punishment. Dean hangs his head as he worries about his part in the abuse (“I was following orders”) and Harry is quick to condemn his treachery (“Thank you, Dr. Goebbels”). When Sam emerges from the bathroom wearing only a towel on his waist, the effects of the ritual are painfully visible — red welts on his back — silencing the incipient talk about responsibility, morality, and duty.
Still, these themes are laced through the film that follows. Their night includes some predictable episodes and some less usual: Sam calls his mother Bernie (Jacki Weaver), his one side of the conversation enough to indicate its schematic trajectory: “Mum, don’t cry,” “I’m not going back,” “You don’t understand, mum, they almost killed me out there,” and of course, “I’m sorry I’m such a fucking embarrassment.” These couple of minutes also set up the minimalist plot going forward: Sam will leave his mates behind — taking up with a pretty, self-confident waitress, Emma (Gracie Otto) — and they will more or less pursue him, worried that he will be AWOL and so, bring on himself more disgrace and difficulty.
Emma plays the too-familiar role of healthy outsider, her flirtations with Sam throughout the film hinting at what’s possible outside the confines of the Navy and boy-boy camaraderie. He confesses to her bits and pieces of the trauma now shaping him, beginning with, “I cried in front of the whole crew, I cried like a girl,” and Emma provides the support she’s supposed to, soothing and distracting him. Still, Sam is resolutely unable to act on the possibility Emma embodies, a reluctance indicating his personal confusions but also the schizzy context in which he’s immersed. Reduced to such abjection before his peers, Sam can never recover their respect or his own confidence.
The absurdity of his dilemma — as well as its triteness — is manifest when Dean makes his own confession, in front of his fiancée Sally (Pia Miranda) and her parents Kath (Heather Mitchell) and Fred (Barry Otto). Pressed to come up with a story about the Navy as he and Harry sit with these ignorant civilians in a late-night restaurant booth, Dean unleashes on his future family a brutal, matter-of-factly narrated recap of what he and an officer did to Sam. Kath is horrified (“That’s torture!” “That’s disgusting!”), but her husband assures her this is what happens among men (“The Navy’s like the Force,” he declares, at which point she disparages the Force as well as his flagging virility).
If Dean’s story isn’t, as he says, “dinner conversation,” what happens after is probably more disturbing. Here mother and daughter act out their own versions of man-supportive dysfunction, Sally strolling serenely with her man, complaining briefly about her lack of social life without him, but happy to snuggle up to this fellow she’s just learned has vilely maltreated his mate. At the same time, Kath begins trying to seduce Harry, her husband in tow, a disquieting and sloppy-drunk display that hardly bothers the young, self-styled womanizer (who has made clear his own attraction to older, “skanky” women). It appears that no one can be heroic or noble or even essentially decent in this universe, at least until Sam does right by a pimp who means to inflict yet more dire injury on him.
But Sam’s integrity is only the exception that proves the rule in Three Blind Mice. As its title suggests, the movie is all about the ways that social order is a function of deception and illusion, violence and repression. As men learn to become men within this order, they can hardly hope to emerge intact.