Director Gregor Jordan’s Dirt Music should have everything it needs to succeed. It’s got a great cast that includes Kelly Macdonald, Garrett Hedlund and David Wenham. It’s shot in Australia, with images of the Outback so gorgeous it will have Americans still in quarantine yearning for travel. It’s got original music by Angus & Julia Stone. It’s even adapted by a (fairly) popular novel by Tim Winton. However, despite everything going for it, Dirt Music just doesn’t deliver.
The story follows Georgie (Macdonald) and Lu (Hedlund), who rather quickly fall into bed after they first meet. That would be harmless enough for two consenting adults, but Georgie is living with Jim (Wenham), an emotionally distant and mob boss-like lobster boat captain and Lu (short for Luthor) has a tragic past that makes him unfit for a relationship. However, despite mounting danger, the couple fights to not just stay together, but pull each other of their depression and loneliness.
At the beginning, it’s easier to focus on Dirt Music positives. For one, it’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Sam Chiplin. The colors are vibrant yet realistic and the images of the Australian wilderness–particularly in the film’s back half–feel like a travelogue for the production. Sure, there’s some rough day-for-night, but it’s at least used sparingly. The music is also pleasant and believably something made by a small, family band. Sure, Hedlund’s singing is not up to his co-stars, but he delivers the emotion when it counts.
Indeed, Hedlund and Macdonald’s mere presence is the film’s biggest promise that its story will be worth our time. Both actors have made careers of channeling their character actor talents into starring roles and their performances here quickly give the audience a feel for Georgie and Lu’s standoffish, depressed sexual energy. From the way Georgie self-consciously jumps into the sea naked or the teasing way Macdonald delivers every line to Hedlund, we know how desperately Georgie is looking to feel something. Likewise, Hedlund’s monosyllabic responses yet intense gaze convey Lu’s guarded interest in Georgie and his own wounded quality.
That said, it’s frankly jarring how quickly the characters sleep together and that’s almost exclusively because the script doesn’t justify it. Though the fault likely lays in large part in the novel, Jack Thorne’s script basically treats the why of Georgie and Lu’s sadness and loneliness as a slowly-unfolding mystery and because it takes so long to understand the characters’ motivations, it’s hard to believe a lot of their choices in the moment.
Unfortunately, the confusing character histories and unclear motivations extend to the rest of the film as well and it ends up feeling emotionally inert. When Jim tries to convince Georgie to come back, he uses her connection to his sons as a reason. It seems understandable in theory, but the audience has basically never seen Georgie interact with the children before, so her connection to them doesn’t feel remotely compelling. Even when we eventually see them interact a few scenes later, it feels pro forma, devoid of the genuine emotion Jim tells us she feels.
Similarly, Lu is such a cliché of a damaged hunk that everything he does feels like it happens because the plot calls for it, not because it springs from character. Yes, he’s self-destructive because of his survivor’s guilt, but the self-discovering walkabout he goes on in the film’s second half feels extreme and the longer he traipses through the wilderness meeting one kind stranger after another, the more forced his arc seems—to the point that even the beautiful images begin to emphasize how artificial it all feels.
Though Dirt Music is meant to stand on its own, familiarity with Winton’s novel feels essential to understanding the story on an emotional level. As is, Jordan’s film feels like little more than a collection of plot points with no feeling to connect them. Macdonald and Hedlund are both great actors, but they have little natural chemistry and the script gives them no space to develop it. Jordan’s film may be well-made and its sincerity genuine, but by not convincing the viewer to invest in its characters, the audience is left looking at the film’s intense final moments wondering if they missed something vital along the way.