Jarah (Alexis Lane) is an Aboriginal woman raised on a Christian mission with a husband and daughter (Dalara Williams). After her husband Waru (Shaka Cook) enlists to fight in World War II – on the false promise of more rights upon his return – Jarah is separated from her daughter and forced to work in indentured servitude on a local farm. When Waru returns to take both wife and child back, it sparks off a violent and bloody act of revenge.
The Flood is a new Australian action-thriller, released briefly into theatres during 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic and now arriving on home video. It forms part of a recent bloom in violent Australian pictures tackling and exploring historical acts of violence against the country’s first peoples. While it initially sets itself up as a brutal and difficult presentation akin to Sweet Country (2017) or The Nightingale (2018), the film soon begins suffering from a deeply peculiar tone. Writer/director Victoria Wharfe McIntyre starts weaving in elements of arthouse, grindhouse, western, 1980s Hong Kong action cinema, and even odd moments of satirical comedy. The end result is, I suspect, deeply divisive with audiences. Certainly there is not an Australian film quite like it. At the same time, that is probably for good reason. Either obscurity or a Welcome to Woop-Woop-style cult following awaits.
The film’s violence is blunt and confrontational, and includes murder, beatings, stabbings, torture, and sexual assault. It sometimes pushes the limit of being watchable at all, so often does it inflict an injury or murder a character. It is this heavy level of violence that makes the film such a strange mess: it is very difficult to accept a Tarantino-esque darkly comedic massacre after an hour of rape and attempted genocide. When the film pushes still further into characters diving sideways in slow motion with a pair of handguns, Chow Yun-fat style, or strange music video allusions playing over a cruel patriarch driving a car straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road, the film has no other option but to divide the true believers from the general audience. This blend of genres is effectively catastrophic. One can appreciate each segment or style for what they are, or even marvel at the bravery in collaging so many disparate influences. You should be aware, however, that it will be you and not the film that does the heavy lifting in accepting The Flood for what it is.
Among this delirious mixture are some fine performances. Shaka Cook is particularly great as Waru, who tried to abide by white colonial rules, and got let down, and tries to resist those rules, and gets let down again. Alexis Lane gives a game performance as Jarah, but is honestly struggling against some truly difficult shifts in character and circumstance. Peter McAllum has presence as villainous patriarch Gerald McKay, but as with Lane he has his work cut out for him.
To McIntyre’s credit, The Flood is an attempt to do something relatively unique amidst a crowded and very specific Australian genre. There have been many films of Aboriginal Australia in recent years that showcased the deep violence – both personal and political – done in this country’s past, and while it is absolutely an important cultural conversation to be had, I can’t help to wonder if we can see more contemporary settings being employed in the future. A similar wave of films hit Hollywood a while ago, in that case exploring the Holocaust in a string of difficult and provocative works, and had a similar effect. Replaying the past too often allows an audience to ignore the present. The awful bigotries of the past continue apace in the present, and it would be good to see local cinema reflect that.
The Flood is a difficult film to recommend, because I am relatively certain most viewers are going to hate it. It is horrendously messy and regularly an awful challenge. For me, when the closing titles started rolling I laughed out loud. I may feel the film is a creative failure, but what a bold, brave, and ambitious failure it is. I am very keen to see what Victoria Wharfe McIntyre directs next.