How much do you know about your neighbors? How much do you REALLY want to know? Podcasts, documentaries, and social media continually whet our appetite with all things “true crime.” And in almost each and every product/story we get a glimpse of suspects and perpetrators through the lens of their neighbors, those who might seem to “know” them best, if only through proximity. But how much do they really know? Or is all just curiosity mixed with speculation and just the right hint of projection?
2001’s Lantana is an overlooked mystery that partially delves into this concept of the neighbors as both comforting presences and potential menace. But it’s also an examination of the people actually in our lives, how much we know about them, and how much we SHOULD know. It reminded me of 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, where a bus accident seems to tear a town apart but upon further examination the people were already fraying. Lantana centers around the discovery of a potential murder victim (I will not reveal who) and how it galvanizes a group of people, all effected in different ways.
The film takes place in a suburb of Sydney, Australia and stars Anthony LaPaglia (in one of his best roles). US film audiences became aware of Mr. LaPaglia in such cult films as Betsy’s Wedding (where he is the best thing in the film), So I Married an Axe Murderer, and Empire Records. He then segued into more mainstream recognition as a NY-based FBI agent in TV’s long-running Without a Trace. But to hear him in his native Australian accent is to be privy to his genuine talent and power as an actor.
As Leon Zat, he is a police detective investigating a woman’s body discovered in the Australian bush. But, it’s not that simple. He is currently cheating on his wife, suffering cardiac episodes, and looking for any excuse to beat up anyone. In an early scene, we watch as his bull doggedness causes him to collide with a fellow jogger. The other jogger, who has his own heartbroken tale, was just as careless and yet we are left to wonder who else will wind up in Leon’s tornado path.
We meet Zat’s wife, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong) who is aware of his cheating and tries to exact revenge in a scene of that aches of fury and misplaced passion. She is also seeing a psychiatrist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), hoping to get through this rough patch. In turn, Valerie is having marital woes of own with her distant husband, John (Geoffrey Rush), whom she thinks is cheating with one of other patients. We learn that their daughter was tragically taken from them years ago and Valerie took it upon herself to pour her grief into a best-selling book.
Also, in the mix is Jane (Rachael Blake), Leon’s lover and potential witness to elements of the investigation. She just happens be a neighbor to Nik and Paula (Vince Colosimo and Daniela Farinacci). Nik is considered a suspect in the crime, perhaps out of merit or just dumb luck. Without revealing too much, all of these lives will collide, and we watch as certain characters need to hide what they know, and some are just hiding out of habit. There are many powerful scenes, but the best one may be watching LaPaglia and Rush in a very subtle face off near the film’s climax. We see cop and suspect but we also see two husbands with vary degrees of guilt trying to figure each other out as well as themselves.
Andrew Bovell’s screenplay (adapted from his own stage play) is sharp and tragic. He creates a small universe of characters, each with their own distinct tragedies and sins, whose lives seamlessly interlock due to one small event. Director Ray Lawrence choreographs these intertwining characters with skill and keeps everything moving towards the inevitable tragic conclusion. And the performances are first-rate, from LaPaglia as a cop on the edge, to Rush as man whose pain makes him look guilty in more ways than one to both and Armstrong and Blake as women being wronged and struggling to find a way out and Hershey as an intelligent woman whose propensity to doubt has caused a rift in her marriage and causes a grave judgment in error that is the catalyst to the film’s drama.
In the end, we never know how we will act when tragedy strikes. We can plan, we can strategize, and we can get our affairs in order, but nothing ever truly prepares you. On the other hand, some people are just happy (or pretending to be) to live their lives as is, in the moment, with no recognition of consequences. Lantana is about a group of people from the latter, and what happens when they realize that a lot of their tragedy is of their own creation.