Robert Sarkies/NZ/2006; R4
Dendy/Magna Pacific, NZ$34.95 | Reviewed by Shahir Daud

IT IS A shame that Robert Sarkies second feature film had to be renamed just prior to release. One wonders what the haunting title of Aramoana would have done for its distribution chances overseas. Out of the Blue may be an apt replacement, but it’s far too generic a title for a film this powerful.

Indeed, Sarkies and co-screenwriter Graeme Tetley had their work cut out for them, recreating the terror of a sleepy beachside community, confronted with one of their own beyond the precipice of sanity. David Gray may have robbed Aramoana of thirteen of its residents, but also managed to strengthen the town’s resolve. Consulting on the script, requesting the change in title, and participating in the censorship process, the residents of Aramoana certainly linger both in and out of the films searing frames. To their credit however, in the face of such sensitive material, and so many interested parties, Sarkies and Tetley have crafted a haunting portrait of an idyllic New Zealand shattered by the sound of a rifle.

From the tranquil opening, to the solemn conclusion, Sarkies refuses to glorify David Gray’s terrifying rampage, focusing instead on the response of community who may have been ill-equipped to notice Gray’s downward spiral, let alone survive his final moments. Perhaps the most poignant is Helen Dickson (Lois Lawn), an elderly resident who crawls across a street to place a duvet on another of the wounded. Watching her retreat to her crib and wait in silence as Gray roams freely outside is a breathtaking moment of true human courage.

But this is nothing for the portrayal of Gray himself, stunningly essayed by Matt Sunderland with both incomprehensible rage and insurmountable frailty. In a beautiful moment, Gray removes his permanently affixed balaclava to reveal his bald skull, at once an immediate source of frustration, and a powerful visual revelation that Gray may have just been a sad little man.

For such an important New Zealand film, why does it feel so forgotten only a year since its release? There’s something quite disconcerting about the hoopla surrounding other New Zealand films and their success overseas (I won’t name films), while this gritty slice of kiwiana seems to be drifting away from public consciousness.

And as a film, it’s certainly not without its faults. Karl Urban may add marquee value, and delivers a fine performance as police officer Nick Harvey, but in this particular case, his story doesn’t quite deliver the same dramatic weight as Julie-Anne Bryson’s (Tandi Wright), who almost loses her entire family in the massacre, but is relegated as a secondary character in the film’s third act.

But to state the obvious, Out of the Blue is a rare masterpiece showcasing not only an increasingly confident filmmaker, but also revisits a terrifying moment in New Zealand history with such skill and delicacy that the full horror of David Gray’s rampage seems to have been entirely redefined. The tragic loss of so many may be a wound which the township of Aramoana may never fully heal, but Out of the Blue reminds us of the rare courage that tragedy can bring about.

QUITE appropriately, the DVD is packaged neatly with several accompanying featurettes and a thoughtful commentary from Sarkies and author Bill O’Brian (whose book Aramoana: Twenty Two Hours of Terror is the primary source material). Inevitably, there are a few controversial moments in the retelling, particularly the seemingly indifferent attitude of the anti-terror team who light up cigarettes as David Gray bleeds to death. Sarkies’ explanation doesn’t necessarily assuage concerns, but does highlight his point: to the anti-terror team, Gray’s capture was simply the end of a difficult days work. In actual fact, the anti-terror team stood aside as a medical team attempted to revive Gray, however, this fact is omitted for dramatic effect.

One final note, Greig Fraser’s cinematography makes Out of the Blue surely one of the New Zealand’s most beautifully lensed films, and thoughtfully reproduces not only the sleepy sun-drenched sea-side setting, but also faithfully reproduces David Gray’s short sighted vision for stunning effect.

News that Out of the Blue has found a UK distributor and may slowly open in the US market is a re-assuring thought for New Zealand filmmakers, but I can only hope that the film will eventually find a larger audience, and cement its place alongside Once Were Warriors, The Piano, Heavenly Creatures and In My Father’s Den.

See also:
» Suddenly, Last Summer: Out of the Blue