Maude (Adelaide Clemens) is an Australian medical student living in Germany. A year ago her twin sister Cleo disappeared from her home in Adelaide. While their family has moved on – even holding a funeral with an empty casket – Maude is haunted by dreams that Cleo is alive. Returning home, she follows a string of clues to a strange community out in a South Australian forest.
Rabbit is a great new Australian thriller: well-paced, smartly plotted, and brilliantly unsettling. It boasts several strong lead performances, some great surprises and plot turns, and a fairly innovative approach to music, editing and story structure. For writer/director Luke Shanahan it represents a confident and accomplished feature debut.
It seems a little predictable at first. Maude suffers a collapse in her German medical school and is sent home to Australia. She argues with her parents over whether or not Cleo is still alive, revealing a very broken family in the process. The only people who seem to believe her story are Ralph (Alex Russell), Cleo’s fiancée, and Henry (Jonny Pasvolsky), a troubled police detective who failed to locate Cleo a year earlier. All three follow Maude’s intuition, leading them out to a frighteningly unwelcome caravan park in the middle of the woods, and then-
And then the film simply flips. With a jarring scream of noise and a blank red screen the story takes a tyre-burning right turn into an entirely different kind of thriller. The paranoia shoots through the roof. There is a near-constant and steadily growing sense of dread. The mystery of Cleo’s disappearance is replaced by the mystery of what precisely has happened to her since. This discomforting new direction is accompanied by jarring visual and musical cuts and an ambivalent emotional tone. If the first half feels relatively American in style, then the second feels actively European. Much of the screenplay could easily have been shot in 1970s Britain, since it captures that period’s bleak, slightly disturbing tone so well. Anna Howard’s photography is exceptional. Michael Darren’s musical score, seemingly inspired in equal parts by John Carpenter and Italian ‘giallo’, is tremendously effective. Every jump cut in the music jolts the viewer. It is momentarily disorienting, because we have been trained by pretty much every other film we have seen that musical scores are not supposed to work that way. The cumulative effect is wonderful.
Adelaide Clemens provides a strong and hugely sympathetic lead, expressing a combination of vulnerability and dogged resolve. The cast’s other highlight is Veerle Bætens as Nerida, a camper in the caravan park who shows a particular interest in Maude’s investigations.
The film’s conclusion runs the risk of being rather divisive. This is not a film that ties up its story in a neat and obvious fashion. Shanahan appears to embrace ambiguity, and how one responds to his rather abrupt ending will depend entirely upon how willing they are to accept the unanswered questions that the film leaves behind. Then again, if you reach the end of Rabbit without satisfactory answers, it is possible you were asking the wrong questions.