This new production from RealTV packs a mighty punch. It's as good an example of Australian gothic as you're likely to find, with breathtaking performances by Hayden Spencer and Louise Brehmer.
Written and directed by company founders Angela Beitzin and Leticia Cáceres respectively, it mixes elements of underworld thriller, Indigenous ghost story and eco-political parable, a powerful tale of unhealed wounds and the narrow bush track that leads to redemption.
Belinda (Brehmer) is on the run after getting in too deep dealing drugs. She heads to Mount Morgan, once a major mining centre now a town in terminal decline. It's little more than an out-of-the-way tourist spot, site of one of the world's largest artificial holes, the open cut mine.
On the scrubby fringe of town, up in the hills, lives Belinda's father, a former bank robber in retirement after a long stretch in prison and a knock on the head that left his faculties somewhat impaired. Can he remember where he stashed the loot from his last job? Can he remember his own daughter?
Pete Goodwin's sound design effects a wonderfully convincing evocation of the scene: the ghostly but familiar cry of a masked lapwing, the barking of a mongrel dog, low groans from the bush and the all but subliminal surging of discords at key moments. Cáceres uses the space deftly. It's as though La Mama's Faraday Street studio was tailor made to play this derelict hovel.
Though the story touches on many tropes familiar to the Australian true-crime tradition, there's something original here in Beitzin's writing. These are less lines written for actors than runes carved in ironwood with the sharp edge of a lump of ore. The feeling of the place is palpable, its spirit looms up and puts the soul in shade.
As the broken crim, Spencer is like a marooned alien, or like a creature whose native habitat is the very brink of a mineshaft, forever peering into a deep well of darkness, the 'black spots' which plague his own memory. Brehmer's role as a North Queensland ne'er-do-well is more conventional, but equally convincing, a brief sketch of trampled hope done in scowls and looks of hurt surprise.
The "Tall Man" of the title is the same as that described in the book by Chloe Hooper: "Tall Man stories exist all over Indigenous Australia ... they hide in dark places and come out at night. That's when they are active ... That night work they do can be evil. It still make people worry a lot." But the Tall spirit evoked here is neither explicitly good nor necessarily evil; it is rather a roaming father to the orphaned, perhaps more akin to Percy Trezise's mischievous Quinkins.
And yet there is a strong feeling of menace here, of something watching and waiting with hostile purpose. You can't second guess the Tall Man.
Australian gothic, when it is true to itself, true to the local conditions, is the genre of gamblers, worn-out crims, depressives, widowers, dipsomaniacs, victims of natural disaster, foreclosed families, men or women who have worked since they were 13, the dispossessed and the degraded. Harsh people made harsher still by the harshness of the country and the harshness of life. The archetype is Albert Tucker's painting called simply “Australian Gothic”, described by Janine Burke as "three desperate gamblers in profile, harshly lit from overheard".
Having been brought so low, and been so reduced, these gothic specimens, people on the brink, have a closer connection with the spirits of the difficult places they live. We can see it for instance in the Dal Stivens comic short story, "The Gambling Ghost", where the alcoholic Frying-Pan Fred is lured from his hut into the mallee scrub for a poker game with the departed. And we see it here, with Spencer's character, who regards the environment around him, and the spirit lurking therein, with a mixture of terror and respect.
For what it is – a short play, modest in its individual parts, built to tour, written on an obscure commission to profile a rural Queensland town – The Tall Man is a brilliant success. But one can also feel the potential for something greater, something that extends the themes and fills out both the natural and supernatural vision. Perhaps a feature film. Why not? All the elements needed for a suspenseful and original thriller are here in abundance.