Brothers' Nest review – a comedy-horror so black that it's not funny

Eleven years after Kenny, Shane and Clayton Jacobson team up again for another comedy classic – this one stranger, darker and ickier

The last time brothers Shane and Clayton Jacobson partnered on a feature film, the result was a bona fide Australian classic: the 2006 toilet cleaner mockumentary Kenny. Starring Shane and directed by Clayton, it premiered in a small town in Victoria called Poowong (the pun was definitely intended) and became a surprise smash hit down under, even spawning a short-lived television spin-off.

Eleven years later, the Jacobson siblings return with Brothers’ Nest, both starring in the lead roles, and with Clayton (a long-time actor, recently appearing in Top of the Lake: China Girl) once again directing. This is also a comedy, albeit of a much darker kind. It is a stunningly depraved piece of work, infused with itchy psychological energy and structured in the way of a wordy, nowhere-to-run chamber piece.

Brothers’ Nest premiered earlier this year at Austin’s SXSW festival, joining a coterie of recent Australian films to receive gushing reviews from critics abroad, before screening at home (see also: Warwick Thornton’s neo-western Sweet Country and Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade, a US/Australia co-production).

For most of Brothers’ Nest, Jeff (Clayton) and his younger and more impressionable sibling Terry (Shane) wear bright orange bodysuits. This might appear to suggest that (like in Kenny) they are here to clean up a mess, but the opposite is true: these outfits are for leaving no traces in what will become a crime scene.

Not here to clean up a mess, but to make one.
Not here to clean up a mess, but to make one. Photograph: Label

“Once you step inside here, you’re in,” growls Jeff, outside a fog-ensconced house in country Victoria – a house the pair are about to break into. This is the place they grew up, a neat way for the screenwriter, Jaimie Browne, to add a “this time it’s personal” twist to criminal activities about to be undertaken. Browne co-wrote another clever crime comedy with a simple but shrewdly teased-out concept: the 2014 Australian film The Mule, starring a butt-clenching Angus Sampson as a drug mule determined not to go to the toilet (which would make easy work for Kenny).

Jeff regularly invokes the words of the pair’s late father, with much talk about doing what’s right for the family and what dad would have wanted. This sullen, churlish fellow is a stickler for details, with a passion for planning characteristic of the obsessive Hitchcock villain: Ray Milland from Dial M for Murder, or John Dall from Rope, or Robert Walker from Strangers on a Train. Jeff has a checklist of tasks for him and Terry to accomplish, including one that ominously reads “electrocution”. Their plan has something to do with their mother’s husband, Roger (Kim Gyngell).

Orange is a striking colour, appearing not just in Jeff’s and Terry’s suits but all around the place – from framed pictures of animals on the wall to decor, furniture and fabrics. The gloomy cinematography of Peter Falk (who shot the riveting 2007 indie film The Jammed) has a similar feel, with musty, corrosive-looking hues evoking a kind of sepia gone wrong.

Kim Gyngell
Jeff has a checklist of tasks for him and Terry to accomplish, including one that ominously reads ‘electrocution’. Photograph: Label

One of the greatest lines uttered so far in 21st century cinema belongs to the excellent, aporkalyptic 2009 disaster movie Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: “You can’t run away from your own feet.” That sentiment – about our inability to escape ourselves – is fertile ground for many different kinds of films, recently explored in the bone-chilling horror movie Hereditary, which considered things inextricably tied to us: blood, DNA, ancestry.

Brothers’ Nest is similarly concerned with – as one character bluntly puts it – “family shit”. The sense of horror is palpable, as in Hereditary, despite the comedic elements, but Browne emphasises the things we have the power to change. Specifically, this film is about the difference between letting go of grievances from the past and allowing them to tear us apart.

Banter between Jeff and Terry is absurdly amusing, propped up by two excellent and highly engaging performances from Clayton and Shane (the latter breaking a spell of several recent duds: Guardians of the Tomb, The BBQ and That’s Not My Dog). But the comedy in Brothers’ Nest becomes so black it stops being funny – you simply cannot keeping laughing at where this film goes.

Several critics have connected it to the work of the Coen brothers, particularly Blood Simple and Fargo. The comparison is reasonable, but Brothers’ Nest is a different, ickier and stickier kettle of fish, with a festering atmosphere that clings to you. Inserting jokes into a film like this, making it genuinely funny while the walls seem to close in and the stink of the family house seems to get worse (and not in a Kenny-esque way) was a risky move. The gamble paid off. The Jacobsons have given us another comedy classic, far stranger than the last.

Brothers’ Nest opens in Australian cinemas on 21 June


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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