Dirt Music is…perplexing. Or at least it would be, if it wasn’t so boring. Although it features visuals of Australia at its most gorgeous, painting a vivid picture of a landscape that is both romantic and melancholy, it’s a dull slog, despite clocking in at under two hours. Dirt Music even manages to make a torrid love affair tedious.
On paper, it should have been an easy sell. After all, we’re half a year into a catastrophic pandemic, and we can all use a little romantic escapism. Dirt Music stars Kelly Macdonald and Garrett Hedlund, two attractive actors who are criminally underrated (although not Australian, which…well, it isn’t the biggest problem of the film, but their accents aren’t ideal.) All they had to do was film an hour and a half of them making out on idyllic Australian beaches and everything would have been golden. Where did it all go wrong?
The love story is as good a place to start as any. Kelly McDonald plays Georgie, the discontented partner of a powerful, frequently absent local fisherman Jim (David Wenham), who can’t seem to stave off her restless inclinations for longer than an afternoon. Garrett Hedlund is Lu, a mysterious drifter who spends most of his time illegally fishing and hallucinating visions of his tragically deceased family. They’re both sad, desperately so, and in need of human connection. Do they find it in each other? Well…sort of.
Their relationship is inexplicable in how it develops, without much of a preamble to their eventual affair. There’s little in the way of chemistry, and even less of a cohesive romantic narrative. They meet, they have sex, and they fall hopelessly in love with each other. But there’s no connective tissue, nothing tying everything together, and we’re pushed from plot point to plot point not because it makes narrative sense, but because it has to happen. A casual fling turns to romance and a love worth risking your life over, but how? Why? And most importantly, who cares?
It feels as though the lead characters were only hastily sketched out when shooting began, and although they’re both given side plots in an attempt to build up some sense of drama and conflict, it doesn’t really go anywhere. Georgie gets through the unexpected death of her mother without blinking an eye, except to air some long-buried grievances over her relationship with her father at the funeral. Lu mourns the devastating loss of his brother, sister-and-law, and young niece in a tragic car crash that Jim was somehow kind of involved in.
And although the film introduces elements that could inject some fire into the proceedings, it inexplicably fails to take advantage of any of them, leaving what should be a passionate romance frustratingly tepid at every turn. Calling the film Dirt Music may lead you to believe that you’re going to be serenaded by Hedlund, but although it does feature a fair amount of music, Hedlund just plays back-up. Can we sue for false advertising? It’s even more disappointing considering the talents of its two leads: Macdonald, who has developed a reputation for wringing quirky charm out of even the most seemingly bland material, and Hedlund, a matinee idol type who, after a series of under-performing blockbusters, has been taking on increasingly interesting projects and still has an undeniable star quality. They both deserve so much better than this.
Clearly, whatever intentions Dirt Music may have had, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. With uninspired, unimaginative writing (by Jack Thorne) that squanders every dramatic opportunity it manages to conjure, and two leading actors who are well-intentioned but hollow and unfairly let down by the script, it cannot be regarded as anything less than a failure. It’s pretty. The golds and yellows of the Australian landscape are moody even in their brightness, and evoke a deeper sentiment that perhaps the film deserves. But other than that, Dirt Music has few pleasures to recommend it, and even with a relatively lean running time of an hour and 45 minutes, it limps to an unexciting conclusion with the pace of an injured snail.
Directed by: Gregor Jordan
Written by: Jack Thorne
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Garrett Hedlund, David Wenham