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Praise takes place in an anonymous corner of Brisbane,
Australia. The main setting is a flophouse whose wrought-iron balconies suggest New
Orleans, and whose inhabitants are the spiritual kin of the shadows that haunted
ONeills The Iceman Cometh. One boarder stands out among the
frail old men who gather together at night in their boxing shorts and engage their wizened
bodies in arm wrestling contests. Gordon (Peter Fenton, lead singer of the Australian band
Crow), a younger man (hes in his mid twenties), is so completely shut off from the
world out that even his fellow lodgers cant understand him. A lanky, mopey, nearly
friendless fellow, hes devoid of ambition and refuses to keep a job. He passes his
days chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes despite the asthma that occasionally robs him of
his breath, and getting drunk when he can afford the booze.
A phone call from a former co-worker at a pub at first seems a hopeful sign for Gordona woman might be just the thing to pull him out of his slow decline. Cynthia (Sacha Horler) sets off alarms when she appears, a crude, overweight near-nymphomaniac with a taste for alcohol as acute as Gordons. She courts Gordon by waiting until the idea of sex wont scare him out of his wits before she initiates it between them, and at this point the movie lulls us off-guard with the old romantic notion that lovers, given a chance, can bring out the best in each other.
But though Cynthia may be the type of woman whos invisible in the outside world, her noisy psyche makes her all-encompassing, omnivorous, within the narrowed confines of Gordons life. Her unquenchable sexual appetite makes her even more crazed because Gordon, a premature ejaculator, keeps coming before she has a chance to. The eczema that crosshatches her body (makeup barely covers her facial welts) is both an eyesore and an irritant, and after sex she makes Gordon scratch the sores on her back, carefully so as not to draw blood. When Gordon, at first slowly and then with more vigor, begins recoiling from these demands, Cynthia ups the emotional ante. The bargaining and wheedling that flows from the power imbalance begins to overwhelm Gordon, until his asthma becomes something more than a physical ailmenthe literally cant breathe with Cynthia around.
Praise is a study in the couples uncontrollable, mismatched drives, and shows how they serve as emotional cement for one of the partners while exhausting (and terrifying) the other. Theres an awful kind of comedy in stories like Gordons and Cynthias, and the filmmakers recognize this without exploiting it. When Cynthia rips her clothes off her melon-shaped, scab-ridden body, and huffs, "When are you going to fuck me?", Gordon doesnt grimace for our benefit. He simply fucks her.
Producer Martha Coleman made it her mission to bring Andrew McGahans novel to the screen after she read it eight years ago (McGahan also wrote the screenplay), and director John Curran has almost certainly fulfilled her vision. The movie absolutely reeks of integritynot a single note feels sanitized or truncatedbut its hard to understand what Coleman found so compelling in this minimalist fable to begin with. When we meet Gordon and Cynthia, theyre already so close to the bottom, with such little wiggle-room left before the couples inevitable implosion, that the storys emotional palette cant contain more than a few shades.
Yet Praise has one compelling reason to see it: Sacha Horler. Horlers whoring, bawling, insatiable Cynthia has the same abrasiveness and immediacy as Crissy Rocks self-destructive single mother in Ken Loachs Ladybird, Ladybird, but with fewer actorly flourishes. Horler has scaled Cynthia to the rest of the movie (the focus is almost always on Gordon), so that using "monumental" or any other hyperbole to describe her performance would violate its selfless spirit.
Praises target may be the head of a pin, but the movie hits it dead-on. Its a rarity in that it doesnt invite you to identify with its characters, yet your sympathy for them never flags. And its a hell of a calling card: it will be very be interesting to see what Curran, and especially Horler, have planned for us next.
- Tom Block