Image: Scott Ryan in Mr Inbetween. Source: FX.
There can be no doubt that the camera loves Scott Ryan as Ray Shoesmith – no matter what nasty business the character may be in the process of executing. His relaxed walk, his toothy grin (with bald head bowed), his way of telling people exactly what he thinks of their prevarications and pretensions – all this is quietly riveting. What’s more, Ray is a peculiarly Australian criminal – as the welcome blasts on the soundtrack of old hits by The Loved Ones or Mental as Anything make perfectly clear. Although sometimes enmeshed in a labyrinthine plot reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, Ray’s laconic way of acting and reacting places him in a closer kinship with the crooks of British cinema and TV, from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) to the recent Terminal (2018).
But Ray’s life is not all roughing-up people in order to collect debts; he has an undeniably tender side. He looks after his brother Bruce (Nicholas Cassim), who is battling motor neurone disease. He dotes on his young daughter, Brittany (Chika Yasumura). He deals with the bad vibes emanating from his ex-wife, Jacinta (Natalie Tran), and her new, straitlaced partner. He reluctantly but loyally cleans up messes (of all kinds) created by his pal, Gary (Justin Rosniak). And, on top of all this, Ray even manages to strike up a new relationship with someone almost as laconic as him, Ally (Brooke Satchwell) – who has absolutely no idea (yet) what he gets up to when he’s away from her, or why he occasionally goes full-out aggro on random, annoying strangers.
Mr Inbetween began life as the film The Magician, directed by Ryan himself. The first, “underground” version of that ultra low-budget project shot on video appeared in 2003, but it was then taken up and expanded with the help of Nash Edgerton and others – and it’s this refurbished film that achieved a commercial release throughout Australia in 2005. The Magician used a mockumentary technique inspired, most likely, by the Belgian cult hit Man Bites Dog (1992) – with a fictive filmmaker (played by Massimiliano Andrighetto) gradually forming a queasy bond with Ray, who took his killing orders from an unseen crime boss.
In this new TV incarnation directed by Edgerton, Ray is no longer a sordidly glamorous “magician” of the art of murder, but a more pressed-upon, down-to-earth “inbetween” – with, this time around, his unpleasant boss, Freddy (Damon Herriman), fully visible.
It is rarely helpful, in the long run, to divide screen stories into those that are either predominantly “plot driven” or “character driven” – since, in the best-case scenario, plot, character and theme should all advance together. With Mr Inbetween, however, it’s possible to trace a tension between those parts of the story that relax into an exploration of character interaction, and those that tighten up the plot into suspenseful action.
We speak a lot these days about the possibilities of “long form” serial storytelling on TV but, when a story is chopped up into roughly 25-minute segments, the final form is not necessarily so long. As we all know, the choice to either binge-watch a TV series or experience it parcelled out, piece by piece, over a period of time is crucial. Cramming the 6 x 27 minute episodes (i.e., the entire first season) of Mr Inbetween in one go, as I did, gives the illusion of a single 160 minute movie – a little baggy, choppy and meandering, but a movie nonetheless.
Seen this way, Ryan’s and Edgerton’s storytelling approach appears a little uncertain – stretching things out and exploring the terrain of character interrelationships for the first four episodes, before plunging, for the subsequent two episodes, into a very Pulp Fiction-style rollercoaster ride of errors, encounters and coincidences, leading to a bloody, provisional finale. (A second season is already in the works.)
Taken in pieces and stretched over a longer viewing time, however, I believe that the effect would be considerably different, and richer. Part of the revolution in TV drama introduced by the double-wallop of Mad Men and Breaking Bad was their agonising focus on the ongoing guilt and remorse experienced by men (alas, almost always men!) who lead secret, double lives – either in order to hide a past identity, or cover up a present-day illicit activity.
In this light, Ray’s constant, shuttling movement between criminal menace and everyday hanging-out in Mr Inbetween takes on its own eloquence, even a poignancy. Ray may never transform into a model “good guy” exactly, but it will be intriguing to watch him try to navigate a path toward some kind of normality.
© Adrian Martin February 2019
Mr Inbetween, Season 1 is streaming On Demand on Fox Showcase.
Season 2 will screen later this year.
Mr Inbetween was shot in Australia and produced by Blue-Tongue Films and Jungle Entertainment, in association with FX Productions, Screen Australia and Create NSW. Ryan, Edgerton and Jason Burrows are Executive Producers and Michele Bennett is Producer.
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