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The Hard Word (2002)


The Twentyman brothers are released from Long Bay jail in Sydney to carry out an armed robbery. Dale (Guy Pearce) is the smart one, Mal (Damien Richardson) is dim but kind-hearted and Shane (Joel Edgerton) is an angry bundle of nerves and complexes. The robbery is organised by their shady lawyer Frank Malone (Robert Taylor) who’s having an affair with Dale’s wife Carol (Rachel Griffiths). Most of the proceeds go to the two corrupt policemen, Kelly (Vince Colosimo) and O’Riordan (Paul Sonkkila), who organised their release.

The brothers pride themselves on being the best armed robbers in Sydney. They carry guns but they never hurt anyone. Dale realises they’ve been tricked when they are taken straight back to jail. He also suspects the affair between Carol and Frank. As the Melbourne Cup approaches, Frank hatches a plan for the biggest armed robbery in Australian history. The three brothers are released again; they fly to Melbourne, where Frank introduces two accomplices, Paul (Kym Gyngell) and Tarzan (Dorian Nkono). They are to hold up the post-Melbourne Cup bookies party, where $20 million in cash is exchanged. Dale realises that the Melbourne crims are also supposed to kill him and his brothers after the heist.

The robbery goes badly wrong when the psychotic and dyslexic Tarzan runs amok. The three brothers escape with the loot, by persuading Pamela (Kate Atkinson), a drunken Cup reveller, to drive them to Sydney. Dale stashes most of the money en route. Frank shoots the two bent cops, Kelly and O’Riordan, when they try to shake him down. Dale tells Carol that it’s all over between them. Six months later, the Twentyman brothers are running a country guesthouse when newlyweds Carol and Frank come to see them. They offer plans for one last job.

Curator’s notes

The Hard Word is both a comical crime fable and a story of brotherly love, an unusual mix of elements. Scott Roberts has said he was thinking partly of the character mix in the American TV show Bonanza (1959-73) when he wrote it – three brothers who are very different, but entirely credible as brothers. The film has superficial similarities to the cynical criminal caper movies of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, but there are some important differences. The violence in The Hard Word is far less graphic. In his directing debut, Roberts tries to make it horrifying, rather than gratifying. The main violent scene, when Tarzan runs amok, is cleverly constructed to minimise the actual depiction and maximise the dramatic effect. He even suggests a reason why Tarzan is so unhinged – his refusal to acknowledge his dyslexia, which is subtly introduced in clip two when the numbers on the door are reversed.

Roberts is careful to let us see the humanity and humour in his characters – even the bad guys. It’s clear that the Twentyman brothers are not the real bad guys. They carry out armed robberies, but with efficiency and a lack of violence. The people they work for are much nastier, and they don’t give them much choice. They either do the robberies or they stay in prison for a long time. Each brother is also shown in relation to a romantic attraction, to further endear them as characters. Dale has his wife Carol, who loves him despite her cheating; Shane seduces his prison counsellor Jane (Rhondda Findleton) and Mal falls instantly for the tipsy Pamela (Kate Atkinson, see clip three).

The film succeeds largely on the basis of this bond between the brothers. They’re different, funny, hardworking blokes who just happen to be experts at armed robbery. In fact, they’re the modern equivalent of the Kelly brothers – urban bushrangers living in a corrupt system. That’s a story that Australians always seem to respond to, going back to before the birth of cinema.