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Violence and Redemption in Romper Stomper, Autobus and Light Sleeper

Romper Stomper (Geoffrey Wright)

In his review of Geoffrey Wright’s Romper Stomper (Weekend Australian, November 14-15 1992), David Stratton opines that "Wright seems content simply to depict the violence and senselessness of racism and leave it at that". Either Stratton walked out of the film halfway through or he has allowed his feelings to cloud his judgment. Seeing the trees and not the forest also affected many reviewers recently in the case of Eric Rochant’s Autobus (a non-translation of Aux yeux du monde). Both films are very conscious of following through on their violence, i.e. showing its payback. Paul Schrader’s Light Sleeper, meanwhile, has condoned killing without a peep from the critics.

What I’d like to do here is to compare the violence contained in these three films, and examine where that violence leads the main characters. All three films are moral tales set in distinctly modern contexts, and they all go beyond both conservative and liberal ideas of what it means to live in a world which lacks "peace, love and understanding". (I will explain what I mean by this presently.) In this sense, they are unflinchingly brave, and, dare I say it, instructive.

For a reference point, I want to use Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The paradigm this major novel contains is the classic, Christian one: the perpetrator of violence begins to feel guilt and is then redeemed. Within this transgression/transcendence paradigm, there also exist two minor elements relevant to this discussion: one, that the protagonist’s feeling of disempowerment (I am assuming here that violence mainly springs from the revenge instinct) produces an ideè fixe, however irrational, which then catalyses and justifies the violence; and two, that the victim of the violence is a "deserving" victim, or seems to be (because of the victor’s paranoia, e.g. in the case of the Queen St. killer, Frank Vitkovic).

Of the three under discussion here the film which follows Dostoyevsky’s pattern almost perfectly is Autobus: the disempowered antihero, with an ideè fixe, commits an act of (psychological, not physical) violence, and then repents and is forgiven (by his girlfriend – he still goes to jail, of course). Rochant’s treatment of all this is so understated that many reviewers have seemingly failed to even notice it – Neil Jillet in The Age thought the film was a "romantic comedy". It seems that if a film bypasses overtly delineated characters (drug dealers, skinheads) and focuses on ordinary people, then that film must necessarily be ironic – a response given by trendy, "knowing" audiences to not only film-makers like Ray Argall, but also to those like Hal Hartley.

That Rochant is a Dostoyevsky – and the film-maker who is permeated by Dostoyevsky, Robert Bresson – fan is undeniable. That he has resisted the temptation in his film of finishing with a prison scene (a perfect setting for spiritual freedom), as Crime and Punishment does, is near miraculous. It is temptation that Bresson succumbed to (in Pickpocket, but not in L’Argent), and, on from him, Paul Schrader (American Gigolo and Light Sleeper).

The Schrader usage of a prison scene in Light Sleeper is inappropriate, or, more precisely, less effective than in Crime and Punishment or Pickpocket, simply because the protagonist, John LeTour, has not actually transgressed in any way. Or has he? Schrader’s rigorous, "stay on the outside" style does not help any, but clearly his script has problems: whether LeTour could have avoided killing Tis and his bodyguards, or whether he had to do so in order to survive, is slightly open to question. It seems that an element of the former is there, as the feeling of redemption gushes forth in the last shot. Either that or Schrader is a lazy writer, mixing a halfbaked script with a scene that has certain connotations. (Another Bresson aficionado and critic-cum-film-maker Scott Murray, has avoided this problem. In his Devil in the Flesh there is no prison scene, but the transgression-forgiveness pattern is very clear, and also very poignantly done.) Assuming LeTour has to kill in order to survive, then this is a different violence to the ones enacted by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Bruno in Autobus. This is "good" violence, under the euphemism of self defense. That Schrader does not see this violence as tragic, or at least regrettable, is a sign of weakness in his vision of human beings (the victims are reduced to non-entities). Romper Stomper has the same violence in it – Davey has to kill Hando in the end, to save Gabe and possibly himself – but at least in its case there is a touch of regret (Well, Hando has real "nuisance" value at least).

Davey and LeTour are remarkably similar characters – they are manifestations of one type, as Raskolnikov and Bruno are of another. A third type is exemplified by Hando, and one suspects that if Davey were the main character of Romper Stomper, the response to the film would have been universally sympathetic (as it has been for Light Sleeper).

Hando is neither hero or antihero; if Davey and LeTour are moral but flawed, and Raskolnikov and Bruno learn to transcend their immorality, Hando is immoral through and through. Again, he is someone with an ideè fixe, but this time the idea is well and truly fixed. There can be no redemption for Hando, and the film’s closing is as nightmarish as its opening. This is commendable, as is the Hando portrait in the overall sense: the Dostoyevsky/Bresson vision of the redeeming criminal is very romantic (and also very dangerous – it can be seen as sanctioning transgression, if the proviso of penance is there).

A closing comment on the "deserving victim". Romper Stomper has one – Gabe’s father. But it is Hando who is the ultimate "deserving victim". Is there anyone alive who, in LeTour or Davey’s position, would not save themselves? Jesus, perhaps? Conservative morality would say "thou shalt not kill"; liberal morality would say "thou shalt kill if need be". What these three films seem to be saying is "thou kills at all moments"; that that is what life is about. (cf. Nietzsche’s Will to Power) That is perhaps the deeper meaning lurking within that statement that the old woman makes in L’Argent: "If I were God, I would forgive everyone."

© Bill Mousoulis December 1992
This article was first published in Filmnews, December 1992.