1% review – biker drama revs hard but mostly just spins its wheels

Despite lashings of sex and violence, this film about warring motorcycle gangs is remarkably devoid of subversiveness

Ah yes: the biker drama about tattooed chest-beating meatheads who ride and root and drink and fight. Haven’t we seen this movie before? The debut feature film director Stephen McCallum reheats a stodgy petrol-scented sandwich in 1%, for a story about – as the press notes put it – “brotherhood, loyalty, ambition and betrayal” in the Copperheads motorcycle gang, where Paddo (Ryan Corr) is “heir to the throne.”

What throne? Perhaps I’m letting that particular word bother me too much. But the idea that the seedy lead-footed goons populating this ugly underworld drama belong to anything remotely resembling a kingdom suggests what the story should be trying to avoid: glamorising the lives of miscreants and meatheads. These beefcakes are not part of any kingdom; that word, like “dynasty”, romanticises the squalor of their lives.

There is something both audacious and defeatist about writers of wrong-side-of-the-tracks stories who delight in obsessing over abominable characters and then, in a last-ditch attempt to rise above the moral quandaries of their own material, slap on a violent ending to remind us that “crime doesn’t pay”. Or that their filthy brutes have “died by the sword”.

Before we continue, just to be clear, 1% is not a tale of affluence adoration that champions the grotesque behaviour of the ultra rich. This one exists in a gritty underworld filled out with virile, well-built blokes sporting names such as Skink, Muscle and Bomber.

A still from 1%, an Australian film about motorcycle gangs, directed by Stephen McCallum and written by Matt Nable.
1%: unpleasantly reasserting the patriarchal, moth-eaten narrative of devious women. Photograph: Icon Films

Matt Nable, who also wrote the script, plays Knuck, the rough-as-guts leader of the Copperheads who is about to be released from prison and determined to reassert his authority in the gang. The more rational Paddo has ambitions of his own, encouraged by his girlfriend Katrina (Abbey Lee) who serves along with club matriarch Hayley (Simone Kessell) to reassert the patriarchal, moth-eaten narrative that women are the truly devious, deceitful and disloyal of the two sexes.

Nable also wrote the screenplay, filling it with macho blather and brouhaha as various tensions simmer (inside the group and between another gang led by Aaron Pedersen) and inevitably boil over. 1% contains what you might expect of a film about motorbike-riding men in singlets grunting at each other: lashings of sex and violence; demeaning conversation about women; lots of discussion about deals and allegiances.

All the performances are impressive, as is McCallum’s direction of them. The cast feel intensely unified and organically part of this world. Josh McConville is a highlight as Paddo’s unstable younger brother Skink, providing a vulnerable counter to the testosterone-fuelled machismo around him.

All the performances are impressive, including Aaron Pedersen, pictured, and Josh McConville.
All the performances are impressive, including Aaron Pedersen, pictured, and Josh McConville. Photograph: Icon Films

The film is, weirdly, almost entirely devoid of footage showing motorcyclists on the open road, reducing its potential scope as a contemporary take on old or even ancient and primal behaviour, a là warring chariots or riders on horseback. There is something oddly stirring about watching groups of bikers travelling down a road in choreographed unison, with its tribalistic undertones and suggestion of “free spirits’” and vagabonds.

There is no expiration date on the telling of stories about bad men heading off into the sunset, metaphorical or otherwise. But to regurgitate the same old powerplays with a splash of modern paint is lazy, and to imply, as the director has, that a violent climax equals “Shakespearean” is borderline obscene. The best and most memorable Australian biker movies are weird and audacious: Mad Max and Stone. They threw out the rule book and swerved wildly into aesthetic and thematic no man’s land.

Mad Max (for a long time the most profitable feature film from anywhere in the world) might be a high benchmark. But the also low-budget Stone was wild and woolly, directed by a man – Sandy Harbutt – who never made a narrative feature before and never made one again, his legacy forever synonymous with truly letting it rip for the proverbial one night only. There’s no shame in that. The film was messy but by God it was bold.

If the broad church of bikers – in real life as in the movies – has one thing in common, it is surely some degree of subversiveness. Instead of celebrating that, the drama in 1% gets down and dirty in a faux-realistic way, paired with aesthetics (including strong but choppily edited cinematography from Shelley Farthing-Dawe, who shot the plucky low-budget dramedy That’s Not Me) that can’t bear to fully surrender slickness to grit. The result is a film that swings its fists but rarely lands a blow.

• 1% is out in Australian cinemas on 18 October


Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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