Underrated / lake mungo

written by jack o'kennedy

Late last year Australian director Jennifer Kent’s stunning debut film “The Babadook” was released in cinemas and wowed both critics and audiences alike. Its brilliant combination of horror and psychological drama created a film that featured both a terrifying monster and a moving depiction of grief. A lesser known, but equally affecting film that also manages to combine the pain of loss with overt horror is another Aussie import, the Joel Anderson written and directed film Lake Mungo. Released in 2008, Anderson’s film made a very strong impression with the critics but failed to find an audience even among the most ardent horror fans and has seemingly since been aLL but forgotten.

Told in a faux documentary style, Lake Mungo tells the story of the Palmer family, whose world is upended after a family trip to the lake of the film’s title leads to the disappearance of their sixteen year old daughter Alice. Through a combination of artificial news reporting and talking heads intercut with more artfully shot doc footage we soon learn that Alice has drowned and her body has been recovered from the lake. The story then abruptly takes a turn for the supernatural as Alice’s parents Rosie and David and brother Matthew begin to notice strange noises in their home and ghostly comings and goings. Suddenly what begins as a film examining the effect that the death of a loved one has on the family left behind is complicated by a ghostly presence that may or not be real and is slowly causing everyone it touches to unravel.

What makes Lake Mungo so affecting is its brilliant handling of the divide between truth and fiction and its understanding of the grey space that exists between the two. From a formal perspective the film is utterly convincing whilst masquerading as a documentary. The media blitz following Alice’s disappearance and during the recovery of her body feel very authentic. What really sells this aspect of the film however, is the extensive use of talking heads throughout and in particular the performances of the actors playing her family during them. The confusion and despair of her parents (played by Rosie Traynor and David Pledger respectively) as they publicly struggle to deal with the pain of a dead daughter who is seemingly still present in some form in their home is perfectly realised. Her younger brother (Martin Sharpe) goes the opposite direction, becoming incredibly insular and setting up cameras all over the house in an effort to uncover whats transpiring in his sisters room under the cover of darkness.

These blurred lines between fantasy and reality are the driving force of the films narrative also. We’re drip fed a series of clues relating to Alice’s disappearance and the seemingly unexplaiaable events that happen in its aftermath. Many of these turn out to be red herrings, many others turn out to have a completely different meaning for us when further information becomes available. Ultimately what the film does is create an ongoing sense of uncertainty, pushing the audience in one direction before suddenly careering off into another, leaving us breathless trying to catch up. At the same time, this push and pull feeds into the family’s now extremely fragile dynamic, seeing Alice’s father and brother retreating into themselves, leaving her grieving mother to suffer alone, before emotinal circumstance forces them together again. All of this culminates in a final few moments that somehow manage to combine everything seen so far; secrets, lies, love, fear, the natural and the supernatural to create an ending that is both profoundly unsettling and deeply moving.