Debut director David Field illustrates with a confronting lack of subtlety how petty schoolyard grievances can escalate into full-blown tragedy in The Combination, a provocative drama about bad decisions, misspent youth and racial tensions between young Lebanese and Caucasian Australians in Sydney. Field is also a prolific film and TV actor, most famous in recent years for a small high-impact performance as Keithy ‘grumbling-while-dying-in-a-pool-of-blood’ George from Chopper.
For The Combination, Field lock and loads a hotbed of contentious topics and explores them in the context of a story about an older, wizened, morally reformed brother/ex-con returning home to find his younger sibling heading down an ignominious path towards self-destruction. The audience share with John (played by George Basha, who also wrote the screenplay) a vision of the fatalistic route being tread by Charlie (Firass Dirani) but the brashness of youth affords Charlie’s character little perspective as Field charters his downwards spiral from classroom politics and afterschool brawls to more ominous ends.
A young fresh-faced cast make Basha’s script boogie with a grimly compelling energy, and the film’s sometimes peculiar and distasteful resolutions allow an otherwise foreseeable story a degree or two of unpredictability. At its simplest the message is Don’t Mix With the Wrong Crowds, and the plot points are jagged, sharply contrived and remorseless to the characters who push them – so when they cross ethical thresholds there’s no turning back and little opportunity for second chances.
John’s character makes the film more accessible and palatable for general audiences but, as the prodigal son returning to a broken home, he also makes it more a conventional and archetypal experience. John isn’t just the moral voice of the story but a furiously contemptuous shepherd both marred and strengthened by his past, who confronts questionable types without an iota of fear as he attempts to nudge his brother towards the straight and narrow. The primary obstacle in his way is Charlie’s friend Zeus - played by Ali Haider - a rough and unhinged personality who leads the group in which Charlie belongs and encourages them to dabble in weapons and drug dealing.
Haider, who was born in Beirut and came to Australia when he was a toddler, is quoted on the film’s website as saying “for me this role was easy. I mean I only had to think of all the people that have called me ‘wog’ and all the times I got really fired up.” A little too easy, it seems: In January Haider was arrested, remanded in Silverwater Correctional Facility and charged with assault, providing eerie real-life symmetry to his character’s story. In terms of life imitating art, this was not an isolated incident: in December last year a man was stabbed to death on the dance floor of Sydney’s Beirut By Night Restaurant, which features in one of The Combination’s key scenes.
Field doesn’t tread the path of social realism. The film feels realistic, but not that realistic; these actual events provide a sobering real life backdrop and remind us that the issues explored by Field and co. are out there and need to be confronted. The Combination’s poster reads ‘Come and see the real Australia’ - not a glowing assessment, and one that isn’t exactly conducive to the tourism industry, but it’s impossible to deny the general truth from which it stems. Footage of the Cronulla riots, quickly spliced in towards the end of the film, reinforces its timeliness, even if Basha’s screenplay is regularly simplifying and compacting issues into a plot that moves briskly towards Loud and Clear resolutions.
There is something uneasy and unexpected about the final destination Basha and Field arrive at (if you think you have the story pegged, wait until the last 15 minutes) which is an opaque commentary on vigilante justice that just doesn’t sit right. There is no denying, however, that this is captivating drama - powerful, edgy, voracious - formed thoughtfully and cautiously. The Combination may move to the tune of conventional, tested-and-tried storytelling rhythms, but it feels all too real.
Review by Luke Buckmaster
Director: David FieldScreeenwriter: George Basha
Cast: George Basha, Firass Dirani, Doris Younane, Clare Bowen, Michael Denkha, John Brumpton, Ali Haider, Rahel Abdul Rahman, Rashad Dehan, Vano Rafik, Guang Li, Katrina Risteska
Australian theatrical release date: 26 February, 2009