Back in 1999, I actually did mean to watch this quirky and energetic Australian thriller-slash-black comedy with Heath Ledger and Rose Byrne, and now I finally have.
As I settled down to watch the movie, with Powderfinger’s Belter blasting over the badly dated late-90s opening credits, I realised that it’s been ages since I’ve watched an Australian movie. Hearing broad Aussie accents in a feature film was both strange and also kinda nice.
To the international audiences, Heath Ledger burst into stardom with his unforgettable charismatic turn in the teen comedy classic 10 Things I Hate About You. Closer to home, he also made an impression as a lead in this offbeat crime film, which, horrendous opening credits aside, holds up really well more than 20 years later, thanks to the talented cast, confident direction and well-constructed screenplay.
Ledger plays Jimmy, a bouncer for a Sydney strip club, who jumps at the chance when a local crime boss Pando (Bryan Brown) offers him a simple delivery job. All Jimmy has to do is drop off $10k at an apartment in Bondi, what could possibly go wrong? Well for starters the lady living at the address drops dead from a heart attack just before Jimmy arrives. Assuming that nobody’s home, Jimmy decides to chill at the Bondi Beach for a bit, and buries the money in the sand under his clothes so that he can go for a swim. This truly idiotic move costs him dearly, because unfortunately for Jimmy, a couple of sharp-eyed street kids steal the $10k while he’s splashing in the water. Knowing that Pando won’t be too happy about the botched delivery, Jimmy decides that the next logical step would be to rob a bank with a couple of family friends.
In the midst of all of this mayhem, Jimmy also finds time for a budding romance with lovely Alex (Rose Byrne), a country girl with a love of photography; in fact most of his dumb decisions happen because he’s a complete smitten kitten. There’s a wonderful scene early on in the movie where Jimmy offers to take a picture of Alex, and is struck by her beauty when looking at her through the lens of a camera. There’s not much to the role of Alex beyond the love interest, but Rose Byrne most certainly casts a spell, over Jimmy and over the audience.
Two Hands is clearly a 90s movie made in the wake of Pulp Fiction, with its multiple narratives and characters weaving and colliding with each other with hilarious and catastrophic results, but there’s enough of a distinctively Australian flavour to the proceedings to distinguish it as its own beast. It deftly juggles the absurd and hilarious scenarios that pay off in unpredictable ways (such as dimwitted criminals putting the bullets in the wash), romance, and scenes that are genuinely dark and nasty. One element I wasn’t too sure about was the presence of Jimmy’s murdered brother, whose decomposing apparition hovers on the edge of the story and whose gravelly voice provides the narration. This touch of the supernatural doesn’t detract from the film, but it doesn’t really add anything substantial either.
This is a sort of movie where an ordinary protagonist is surrounded by the much more colourful supporting players; Bryan Brown especially stands out as an acerbic handlebar moustache-wearing mob boss with a passion for Scrabble, chess and origami. It would have been easy for Jimmy to come off as a nothing character, but luckily for the filmmakers, they found a genuinely sympathetic and likeable centre of the story in Heath Ledger. His later formidable acting skills may not be on display here yet, but Ledger’s magnetic presence, laid-back charm and appealing vulnerability shine bright for sure. It’s easy to root for Jimmy even when he does incredibly stupid things.
P.S. I almost went to Sydney earlier this year, before our rosy hopes of interstate holidays were cruelly dashed. This movie’s take on the city is more dirty and gritty than touristy, but the sight of the long-dead Sydney Monorail made me smile with nostalgia.