Lantana is Ray Lawrence’s Aussie rendition of Short Cuts, a multi-character relationship saga disguised as a bubbling thriller. Leon (Anthony LaPaglia) is in mid-life crisis mode, a cop who cheats on his wife Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) with horny adulteress Jane (Rachel Blake). Sonja, suspecting Leon of straying from the roost, takes her troubles to the psychiatrist couch. Therapist Valerie (Barbara Hershey) gets a dose of her own medicine when Sonja and a creepy gay client call entirely too much attention to her own domestic disharmony. Valerie’s husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), copes with the murder of their daughter in silence, casting a pall on their already doomed marriage. Lawrence emphasizes interconnectivity among characters when lives crisscross inside bars, homes and salsa classes. The latter is taught by a beefy Latin lothario you might suspect of the film’s crimes, which proves how successful the film is as an anxiety-ridden sweat chamber. However superficially successful the film may be at tackling issues of repression and bottled-up secrets waiting to spill, Lantana is death waiting to happen. Once it comes, Lawrence takes his time deftly tearing away at scruples and insecurities only to discover lives nearly blurred beyond recognition. Everyone’s a suspect, everyone cheats (others and themselves) but guilt is never certain.
Leon goes running only to bump into a man at a street corner. Leon’s instinctual response is to react violently yet the bloodied stranger begins to cry. As the man walks away, Leon is left to comprehend the mystery of the man’s predicament. As wondrously unexplained as these moments may be, Andrew Bovell (adapting from his stage play Speaking in Tongues) shatters many of the film’s myths through effusive dialogue. When Leon begins to investigate John, their shared marital dilemmas are cozily emphasized through his conveniently obtrusive choice of words. While character run-ins aren’t as smoothly Altmanesque as they could have been (there aren’t enough characters here to merit the film’s many coincidences), Lawrence cleverly plays most of these interactions for laughs. As mysteries unravel, so do character relationships—much like the lantana plant that grows outside Jane’s garden, though Lawrence’s symbolism is evocative enough to never really call too much attention to itself. As a murder mystery, Lantana is subdued and carefully modulated though Bovell’s use of sexuality as a red herring is cheap and gratuitous at best. In the end, Lawrence is most successful at emphasizing familial distance through physical absence; once Valerie disappears, the film’s couples figuratively tango toward each other as if fearing their final damnation. Lantana‘s final shot literalizes this movement in a stunningly tranquil antidote to the film’s otherwise ferocious grip.