Though it begins with the globe-trekking dreams of its protagonist, director Chris Kennedy’s third feature turns out to be a fairly insular film, trying on a couple of hats before settling on comedy. Doing Time for Patsy Cline is the story of Ralph (Matt Day), a wannabe country singer whose grandiose dreams of discovery in faraway Nashville, Tennessee are momentarily waylaid by a pair of dubious strangers. It’s from a dusty roadside that they pick him up attempting to thumb a ride to Sydney and the big bird that waits to carry him to the States and beyond. The strangers are city slickers out of their element: the brash Boyd (Richard Roxburgh), an “importer” of some sort who displays a predilection for sampling his own goods, and his moody girlfriend Patsy (Miranda Otto). Ralph experiences an instant attraction to Patsy who becomes emblematic of the urban wild child he simplistically associates with the fruition of his musical aspirations in the wonderland of America.
Before long, Ralph’s journey reverts to a dual course; the main strand of the film highlights his own painful reality in which Memphis begins to dwindle to a pipedream. An overnight stop at a hotel acts as a preface to a police chase which drops him squarely into the frame for the crimes of others. In the second strand, Kennedy establishes a hypothetical, ‘what if’ scenario in which Ralph makes it to Nashville and takes his first stuttering steps towards recognition. Naturally the alluring Patsy (who is, after all, named after country music legend Patsy Cline) is interwoven into Ralph’s fantasy projection as his singing partner and possible lover, though the shark-like figure of Boyd lurks close by ready to spoil the broth at the first opportunity. Back in reality, Patsy conveniently escapes the highway showdown with police unnoticed, but Ralph and Boyd are locked down in a local jailhouse. Though he pleads innocence, Ralph is helped not at all by the evasive Boyd who is obviously no stranger to the sound of a cell door being slammed shut behind him.
The failings of Kennedy’s film owe nothing to his astute casting. Day’s performance mirrors the deference and endearing modesty that so won over audiences in his big screen debut, Muriel’s Wedding (1994). There’s a meekness to Ralph that might perennially leave him vulnerable to exploitation, but Day’s ability to interpret the nuance of each scene rarely feels manufactured. Both Roxburgh and Otto were on the way to much better things at this point of their careers. Otto is kept off-screen just long enough to preserve her character’s enigmatic status, whilst in the Nashville fantasy it feels like she could fall on either side of the fence, either into Ralph’s arms or recalled by Boyd. With a little more screen time Patsy might have been a femme fatale from a sinister noirish tale but at the expense of Kennedy’s tone. At times Roxburgh’s Boyd seems to treading water, regurgitating a set of familiar reactions to the pitfalls strewn in his path. There’s no real menace in the man; he seems stranded in a grey zone that has his darker side overlapping with a more benign indifference to the world. Yet Roxburgh does a fine job of making his mild extremes believable.
Another major plus for Kennedy was in acquiring the talents of future Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie whose lensing draws out the natural colours, rich and vibrant, from the barren landscape in the early stages. A more conventional palette is required once the narrative separates and mostly remains indoors, but the film maintains a level of high visual quality.
Doing Time for Patsy Cline is moderately successful as a comedy; perhaps less so when aiming to straighten itself and delve into drama. In a sense Kennedy boxes himself into a corner by sequestering the main players in a cell for much of the film. Yet some well-placed laughs and winning performances help alleviate the build-up of some of the negative side-effects of his narrative structure. Despite the antagonistic exchanges between Ralph and Boyd, Kennedy nimbly works some bit players into the mix in the form of a trio of men in an adjacent cell who are less adept at country music vocalisations than their egos allow them to believe. There’s also interest created in the young cop (Tom Long) who goes out of his way to help vindicate Ralph who he suspects of being caught up in a calamity not of his own creation.
The final scenes of the film are problematic ones which eventually lead to a slightly deflating, unsatisfying conclusion. It’s as though Kennedy loses faith in his central protagonist, unable to resolve his journey. Instead it feels like he’s trying to have fifty cents each way in those last moments: bestowing Ralph with a heroic altruism, yet taking vengeance on his naiveté.