With Swerve, writer-director Craig Lahiff offers up a portrait of the Australian countryside that will be easily understood by fans of film noirs and stereotypical American country songs alike. Men are down on their luck, low on money, and stymied by broken-down cars and trucks. Women, at least the few who are around, frustrated by the men’s hopelessness and all-around sense of proprietary hostility, are given to lusty manipulations that can leave corpses and bruised hearts in their wake. The environment itself is, perhaps, even less forgiving than the women: vast, hot, empty, the sun seemingly baking the rampant human disappointment deep into the land. Everyone’s looking to escape, which explains why the characters descend on a cache of drug money like a pack of savage, clueless jackals, indifferent to the potential physical and moral cost.
There’s little to be gleaned from recounting the particulars of the story that Lahiff spins, as you’ve seen it all before, but the filmmaker stages his various atrocities with a sly sense of humor that renders the proceedings remarkably palatable. Swerve is less Blood Simple than Burn After Reading, which is to say that it’s a fleet comedy of survival of the fittest set in a world, traditional to the Coen brothers, in which the principle of a “fittest” hardly exists anyway. As the prominent losers, Jason Clarke, Emma Booth, and David Lyons are crisply engaging, keenly aware of the delicate tonal tightrope they must walk so as to prevent themselves from tumbling over into the valley of inadvertent camp and self-parody.
If Swerve proves to be a bit too slight, and perhaps just a little overly pleased with itself, it’s because Lahiff doesn’t quite display an understanding of the kind of narrative escalation that’s key to mounting a truly effective traditional noir, even if it’s comedic. Nothing in this film ever seems to count for anything, and while that’s consistent with the nihilistic platitudes that Lahiff’s parodying, you miss the perverse and potentially emotionally fuller sex thriller that eludes the director when he switches the narrative course from a romantic triangle to a typical stalk-and-chase film. Swerve is a confident and exciting genre film, and that’s certainly not nothing, but it has a slight impersonality that marks it as either a calling card or a work for hire.