Here is a film almost impossible to review. Romper Stomper (1992) is an Australian film drama directed by Geoffrey Wright, and stars Russell Crowe, Jacqueline McKenzie, and Daniel Pollock. It focuses on a gang of skinheads – violent neo-nazis who maraud inner-city Melbourne, on a constant hunt for Vietnamese immigrants to threaten and violently assault.
It is an exceptionally well-made film. It is also deeply unlikeable to watch in almost every scene. The viewer is required to watch either violent racists terrorize innocent people, or those same racists brutally attacked in turn without any attempt to generate sympathy for them. The content is disturbing, and its purpose is ambivalent. Whatever critic wrote ‘Mad Max eat your heart out!’ in their review, which made the film’s release poster back in 1992, clearly missed the point of both films.
Put simply: if you find it odious that Romper Stomper even exists to be seen, well, you are probably not wrong. At the same time, if you believe narrative film should exist to challenge and provoke, or to safely explore and experience negative emotion or confront real-world horrors, this is as effective a portrayal of Australian neo-nazis are you are likely to find.
McKenzie plays Gabrielle, a young woman running away from an abusive father, who finds solace – somewhat paradoxically – with a gang of skinheads led by the brooding and volatile Hando (Crowe). As the gang’s attempt to confront the local Vietnamese community goes awry, romance between Gabrielle and Hando’s best friend Davey (Pollock) threaten to tear the group apart.
Daniel Pollock and Jacqueline McKenzie play excellent leads here, pushing the viewer into an uncomfortable space of identifying and even sympathising with the characters while still finding their behaviour reprehensible. It is an unsettling feeling to identify with them, given the abominable acts in which Davey participates and that Gabrielle actively cheers on. Their vulnerabilities, however, are clear and provoke a strong desire to see them amend their ways and escape the cycle of violence.
The same cannot be said of Russell Crowe as Hando. It is a muscular, moody performance that expresses a genuine sense of menace. Hando is beyond saving, and throughout the film presents a particularly threatening and volatile presence. At peace he feels dangerous. Enraged, he becomes absolutely terrifying. This is the role that effectively sealed Crowe’s film career, and even after so many years it remains one of his most impressive and memorable performances.
As director, Geoffrey Wright gives the film a palpable sense of place – people that have lived in Melbourne will recognise their city – as well as a strong realist edge. Real neo-nazi punk music plays through the soundtrack. Characters are immediately recognisable. It is the authenticity, without exaggeration or hyperbole, that makes Romper Stomper so terrifying to watch. It is a difficult, unpleasant master work.