Sam Worthington spends lots of time looking intensely glum in Transfusion, matching the tone of the writer/director Matt Nable’s quietly moody action-drama. You can’t blame the guy: not long ago Worthington was swimming in shimmering oceans on a picturesque planet populated by lanky smurfs. Now, in this sombre Stan original film, Worthington plays Ryan Logan, a former sniper for the Australian Army who is struggling to adjust to normal society. He starts selling wine he knows nothing about before getting in over his head, entangled in a narrative reminiscent of a Liam Neeson B-thriller.
The film’s first scene establishes Ryan’s backstory: a mission in Iraq injured him both physically and psychologically. The second provides some father-son camaraderie: Ryan has a very macho bonding scene with eight-year-old Billy (Gilbert Bradman), as the pair hunt for deer. The third reveals Ryan’s softer side, as he hangs out with his pregnant wife Justine (Phoebe Tonkin) and responds to questions from Billy such as: “Can I be brave like you one day?” To be fair, that line reads cheesier than it sounds: this interaction – the entire film, in fact – is decently acted, despite some lacklustre scripting.
The key issue with these introductory scenes isn’t the acting, or the direction, but the machine-tooled nature of the writing. You know it’s all a setup to show us what’s important to Ryan before Nable pulls the rug out from under him. When Justine is killed in a car crash early on, the moment feels so rote, so mechanical, that it is robbed of any genuine emotion. Did we just watch a person die, or a page in the script marked “end of prologue”?
The narrative jumps ahead: Billy is now 16 (Edward Carmody) and a teenage delinquent. A judge lets him off with a warning, instructing him to keep on the straight and narrow or he’ll be removed from Ryan’s care.
Again the setup is obvious: you know the boy is going to get in trouble. And when a former SAS colleague, Johnny (Nable, also acting), comes along offering some easy, albeit illegal, work, you know the opposite is true: working for Johnny is going to be difficult and precarious, and we know Ryan will end up putting everything on the line for himself and his son.
In an era of rapidly advancing artificial intelligence, such as the game-changing AI ChatGPT, it’s only a matter of time until we could truly suspect these sorts of paint-by-numbers scripts were spat out by computer – or that the computer might do a better job.
An inevitable mishap involving Billy sends Ryan scurrying into a life of crime in order to get money – because formula, because algorithm, because he’s going to get In Over His Head. Even the film’s most surreal flourish is deeply templated: the posthumous presence of Justine, who as a ghost (or a vision in Ryan’s head), encourages him to make better decisions; the old “angel on his shoulder” chestnut.
These moments, again, to the credit of the actors and Nable’s direction, aren’t very compelling but they don’t feel clumsy, even suiting the film’s downcast atmosphere. And downcast it surely is: there’s lots of stern looks in Transfusion, along with a lot of bad decisions and tough-talking men. The film is supposed to be dramatically engaging rather than pleasurable – but it’s only occasionally the former.
Transfusion is available to stream on Stan now, and is released on 23 January in the UK on digital platforms