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Backlash (1986)


Police officers Trevor Darling (David Argue) and Nikki Iceton (Gia Carides) have to escort a young Aboriginal woman to the NSW outback to stand trial. Kath (Lydia Miller) is accused of murdering a publican (Don Smith) who tried to rape her. Trevor is a disgraced drug squad detective who was accused of shooting an Aboriginal youth; Nikki is a new recruit who thinks he is a racist. They become stranded in the desert when he decides to take a short cut. Kath saves them with her local knowledge, but they’re being followed by an Aboriginal man in a purple car (Brian Syron). Forced to rely on each other, the lines blur between police officers and prisoner. By the time they are rescued, both Nikki and Trevor believe Kath is innocent. They determine to get the proof.

Curator’s notes

Backlash was Bill Bennett’s second feature, after the much admired A Street to Die (1985). Much of the dialogue was improvised by the actors on location, a technique that Bennett has returned to in several later films (most notably Kiss or Kill, from 1997). The tone of Backlash is quietly comedic, sometimes arguably too much so, but the best scenes have a likeable lopsided humour. Much of this comes from David Argue’s inspired performance as a burnt-out, dope-smoking cop-in-disgrace. He’s sleazy and creepy in the early scenes, but the women can’t keep up their hostility once they’re all stranded in the desert. The bonds between them develop slowly, as they learn to trust each other. The looseness of the scripting means the film lacks cohesion, but that same looseness creates a sense of openness between the characters. Wandering around a deserted sheep station, their labels disappear, or become largely meaningless. The film is a bit like an update of the situation in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout (although that may be entirely unintentional), with a more comical sensibility.

Secondary curator’s notes

by Romaine Moreton

Backlash is a title that seems to be a derivative of the concept of 'payback’, which, as Kath (Lydia Miller) informs Nikki Iceton (Gia Carides), is a fair law exercised within Indigenous culture, compared to the inequity of western law. The delightfully bad cop Trevor Darling (David Argue), his conservative novice partner Nikki Iceton (Gia Carides) and an Indigenous woman accused of murder Kath are very distinct characters, setting up an interesting dramatic triad. An often-humorous film, the police characters, presented as flawed, establish a human exchange between the law and the criminally accused. It is Miller’s character though that saves the three when they are stranded in the desert, using skills from her cultural knowledge to feed and water the group. Miller’s performance is very subtle, and it is her quietness and stillness that provides a contrast to the two police characters, whose verbal exchanges are often heated.

The ending is somewhat confusing and sudden, as The Executioner (Brian Syron) is only connected with the drama through dialogue. Syron’s character appears in the credits as simply 'The Executioner’ and the suddenness with which he reappears at the end for 'payback’ is slightly perplexing.

Backlash is an Australian film of the 1980s that has entertainment value in how it establishes the dynamic between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous characters, putting them in situations where the power dynamics are inverted with humorous consequences.