The Second review – Rachael Blake ventures to dark places in steamy thriller

A calm menace pervades Mairi Cameron’s unconventional debut feature where shady secrets hide in broad daylight

There’s a good reason thrillers tend to take place mostly at night, and it doesn’t take a PhD in cinema studies to guess what that could be: darkness is scarier than daylight. In that sense director Mairi Cameron’s steamy debut feature The Second – the first original film to be produced by Australian streaming platform Stan – is an unconventional spooky movie, eschewing shadows and gloom for a mostly sunny aesthetic. I regularly found myself asking: who turned the lights on?

Cinematographer Mark Wareham (who shot Cleverman, Jasper Jones and Hoges) conjures bright and burnished images, while the story – about a bestselling author who, fending off writer’s block, draws inspiration from her own life – ventures to dark places. The film’s most interesting themes explore the nature of authorship in general and the “write what you know” dictum in particular, taking awfully seriously Albert Camus’ famous quote about a work of art being a confession.

The author is known only as The Writer (Rachael Blake), her vague nomenclature one of several reminders of the film’s persistent high-mindedness (another is Camus’ words being inserted into casual conversation, as well lines of dialogue such as “I’m shining a light on the shadow of greatness”). She absconds to her old family house in a country town to bang out her second novel, taking her publisher and lover – known only as The Publisher (Vince Colosimo) – along for the ride.

The film begins in and around their car as the pair fang it down country roads, with The Publisher drawing an, erm, unusual connection between the landscape and carnal instincts (“It gets me hard!” he says of the beautiful tableau). Cameron’s cameras are cautious and detached. The director cuts between bird’s eye shots of the vehicle to vision of the couple from the back seat, as if she is not yet comfortable enough to observe them directly. It takes several minutes for the film to literally face its characters.

A third player enters the scene, one who will predictably destabilise the core couple and draw secrets to the surface. She is The Muse (Susie Porter), someone who is, we are warned, a “seductive and a devious liar”. In other words, the party’s just getting started. She arrives draped in leather, looking and behaving like an Australian relative of Meryl Streep from Ricki and the Flash, commenting about the cost of cocaine and the need for cocktails.

All the performances in The Second are very good, the actors maintaining cold-hearted realism as Stephen Lance’s screenplay throws them a few too many literary quotes and allusions. Blake is chilly but humane; you’re never sure to what extent she is good, bad or somewhere in between. Porter and Colosimo are similarly impenetrable, the former evading the caricature of the blithe but vulnerable free spirit.

Impenetrable: Vince Colosimo as The Publisher.
Impenetrable: Vince Colosimo as The Publisher. Photograph: Stan

The structure of the film is broken up by an interview with The Writer conducted at an uncertain time, during which she is grilled about her artistic processes and the sources of her inspiration. At one point the interviewer, rankled by the smug and evasive responses, exclaims that she is talking about a serious real-life subject, “not a literary device!” The audience feel her pain, given The Second is a doggedly self-conscious affair.

And yet there is a calm menace about this film that is bizarrely intriguing, cleverly configured by the director to tug viewers in conflicting directions. There are times when Cameron’s approach feels as impersonal as a slaughterhouse employee, and others when she taps into an intimate psychology. There are explorations of matters of the mind such as memories and conscience, connected back to the film’s intellectual raison d’etre – concerning the difference between changing the past and rewriting it.

Cameron’s unusually bright aesthetic summoned in me equal feelings of awe and incredulity. Sometimes I longed for the darker texture of other (better) Australian thrillers revolving around female characters: the lyrical energy of Samantha Lang’s masterpiece The Well; the trippy fusing of reality and fantasy in Ann Turner’s Celia; the ghoulish picture book artifice of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook; the gritty streetside whoosh of Dee McLachlan’s The Jammed.

There is something to be said, however, for a thriller that resists wallowing in after-office hours. Cameron imparts a message that the daytime may be brighter but no less dark, and that secrets hide as much in sunshine as shadows. This remains, despite the onerous intellectualising, an engaging perspective explored with energy and verve.

The Second is out in Australian cinemas from 5 July. It streams on Stan from 20 July


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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