MIFF: Mine Games

Local filmmaker Richard Gray takes a sharp stylistic turn with this twisted teen thriller, but one which our blogger believes yields mixed results...

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A good story has to be plot and character driven; the great idea just isn’t enough.

Mine Games takes us along as seven young people drive into the American wilderness for a holiday in a remote forest town, with no phone reception and no help. When one of them finds an abandoned mine in the wilderness, they all decide to check it out. After a few weird encounters, the seven friends set in motion a series of events that will inevitably end in their own destruction.

Filmmaker Richard Gray (Summer Coda) went to North Bend, Washintgon, to film Mine Games before shooting upcoming Australian film Blinder in Torquay. But Mine Games was originally an Australian screenplay, written by Ross McQueen (Blockhouse Blues and the Elmore Beast), set in Australia, and featured an old building rather than a mine. Gray and his wife, Michele Davis-Gray, loved the script. But they wanted something different. “I was very keen to do this type of film – that had nothing Australian about it – overseas. To make it more commercial,” says Gray. “I wanted to change the setting, to make sure it worked.”

Mediocre success in the US may be worth more money than good sales in Australia, but it’s the story that makes a film good, surely? That, or the names.

One thing that doesn’t work is the cast, which has about as much onscreen chemistry as the Kardashian family. Briana Evigan (Step Up 2: The Streets), Julianna Guill (Crazy, Stupid, Love), Ethan Peck (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, In Time), Alex Meraz (Twilight), Rafi Gavron (Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) were all actors Gray apparently met in a bar, and seem to have been chosen for their looks. Joseph Cross (Milk, Untraceable), who plays Michael, is in a class of his own – he’s the only one with an actable backstory. (I interviewed Peck for the movie, but he didn’t have a lot to say about the film other than it was wonderful, and that Gray is wonderful). Gray’s philosophy was for everyone to play themselves.

“Everybody had worked with quality directors. And so once you know that they’ve been cast in other productions… if it was good enough for Spielberg, it’s good enough for me.”

Peck was relatively silent on this subject. “How did I prepare to play myself?” he asks, laughing. “I didn’t.”

Silence.

Granted, it was a pretty bad question. But I guess I expected Peck to laugh, and tell me what he thought of his character. It really seems that the cast didn’t have to try to be anyone other than themselves – aspiring Hollywood types that don’t do scared well.

In a supernatural thriller, plot is an important thing to get right (I would be interested to read McQueen’s original script). Things are going to happen to the vacationers that can’t be explained – in fact, they must happen. To make the story credible, rules are set up for the world of the movie so that that the audience accepts the circumstances that follow.

“What we tried to do was to make it completely reality driven. So there’s nothing in the film that you need to suspend your disbelief over,” says Gray.

I won’t ruin the film for you. But there are most definitely things that happen in this film that, if they happened to me, would not cause me simply to raise my eyebrows and go back to my coffee and morning newspaper. Neither would you. And yet Gray’s characters do little more than still a quivering lip. For whatever reason (and we will have to guess, because it’s certainly not obvious), they stick around, with little to no rational reason.

“Weird things start happening, but because it’s not a ghost thing, it’s not a zombie thing, I think it just feels like a real situation,” says Gray.

Another element of the script on which Mine Games relies heavily is that Michael’s character is a schizophrenic. This stood out. I asked Gray whether it was in the original script. “No,” says Gray. “We did quite a bit of research into the mental illness that would work for the situation. Also he’s not a bad at all character, or a villain in the film,’ says Gray (a conclusion that seems to be more philosophically – than reality – based). “It’s also a good example of how prejudice can force people to be judgemental when they don’t understand an illness.”

Indeed.

According to Gray, Michael’s particular version of schizophrenia is extremely rare – something that is not explained in the film – and in being subject to the  broad brush, successfully furthers the stereotype that schizophrenia has come to achieve; the entire film rests on the concept that a responsible, mature (as he is characterised) schizophrenic would casually leave his medication behind in the van – and that the medication that happens to not be in the bag he packed – is overwhelmingly convenient.

In fact, few of the characters’ decisions seem realistic. Peck’s character, Guy, rather pathetically suggests that they leave, a suggestion which is put to bed early by the blonde character’s teary, paper-thin reasoning. We are given no real reason why seven young adults of different personalities (I’m assuming) would all have absolutely no voiced qualms about shunting themselves down an abandoned mine – even the girls. One girl – the book reader who’s not adventurous – accepts a magic mushroom when offered it by the crazy boy she’s rejected sexually. And then goes down the mine. It’s bizarre.

Gray says that when they were looking around for ways to make this film “more interesting”, the Chile and Tasmanian mining disasters made for an interesting story. How these situations would inform a film such as this is beyond my humble intellect.

Budget is a touchy subject for Gray, who shies away from the idea of making “low budget” films – he only revealed that Summer Coda cost $680,000 after the film was released and reviewed. “We didn’t want anyone to know because we didn’t want to be seen as just another low budget Aussie film. I’m bored with that stigma,” said Gray. Summer Coda was Gray’s first feature film, and the script won second prize in Project Green Light Australia.

“It’s certainly eye opening how hard it is to get Aussies to see local films.”

I get annoyed at the narrow, yet wide, gap between great Australian movies and the ones that don’t last, and the complaints that follow the latter about local popularity. Australian’s aren’t that different to anyone else. They like a great story, and can see through the rest.

Mine Games will appeal to fans of thrillers who demand little from the script, and just want to be surprised. The film has that. But anyone who wants a little more will be disappointed, and possibly pissed off: this had the potential to be so much better.

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