If Wishes and Buts Were Candy and Nuts…, by David Bax
There’s more to a movie than how it ends. Take, for example, Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend, which spent an hour building one of the most daring and intense genre blockbusters in years before the third act from some other, dumber movie swooped in and delivered the automatic weaponry and explosions no one was asking for at that point. It’s a shame but it doesn’t obliterate the experience of what came before it. What, however, about a film like Kieran Darcy-Smith’s Wish You Were Here, whose plot – or at least the bulk of it – consists of hinting and teasing at the reveal that’s to come at the end? In that case, does the resolution define the entire experience? I still maintain that it does not but, in this case, it certainly feels like it.
Two Sydney couples (a husband and wife as well as the wife’s sister and her relatively new boyfriend) go on a vacation to Cambodia. During the opening titles, we see them relaxing on the beach or drinking and partying. Then a shot of the husband, Dave (Joel Edgerton), walking through the sand at dawn leads us to believe something has gone wrong. In the next scene, we are back in Australia. It isn’t immediately clear how much time has passed but we learn that the boyfriend, Jeremy (Antony Starr), did not come back with them and is registered as missing. From here on, the film is propelled by incremental revelations, some of them coming from one character to another and some of them coming directly to us in the form of flashbacks that lead up to the night Jeremy went missing.
Darcy-Smith works in tense, oppressive and paranoid style, relating the feeling that there is something important you don’t know or something you do but don’t want others to. In one scene, Dave and his wife, Alice (Felicity Jones, who co-wrote along with the director), sit in a room with the investigator tasked with locating Jeremy. All of them are working with different sets of information, some of which they are actively hiding from the others. The camera seems almost to balance on the thick layer of unease that’s strung across the room. Prior to that encounter, as Dave and Alice approach the government building, Darcy-Smith shoots them from across the street as if they’re being watched. Everyone here is queasily miserable and the film reflects that. Yet, instead of making the viewing dull and dreadful, it lends itself to dutiful attention because you want to find out why.
I haven’t yet mentioned the sister, Steph, but Teresa Palmer’s performance is an embodiment of the black sheep, the sibling who’s so permanently a mess compared to the others that they don’t even consider her enough to understand that she’s sadder than any of them. Still, she has the least screen time of the major players with the exception of Jeremy, who’s more of a mysterious catalyst than a character. Really, it’s about Edgerton and Jones, a portrait of a married couple dealing with their problems mostly as a way of continuing to avoid the deeper ones that are causing all the misery to begin with.
Wish You Were Here’s plotting can become complicated with all the multi-layered secrets and flashbacks. That fact highlights the film’s rather simple but well-earned themes about the importance of honesty and mutual respect for others. Darcy-Smith and Jones tempt us with the option of feeling less worried for Jeremy because he may not have been too wholesome. But then they remind us that neither are the ones whose side we know we’re on. We’re essentially being taught the Golden Rule.
Darting from person to person, from fact to lie, from present to past, Wish You Were Here is more than successful at keeping our rapt attention. It teases us at times by doling out only a piece of the information we’re seeking. Elsewhere, it wallops us by disclosing a secret we couldn’t have seen coming. One such instance, a confession blurted out early on, changes the course of the story and makes it even more difficult for the characters to trust one another. Then, after pulling us gently but firmly in for an hour and a half, the movie falls flat on its face just inches from the finish line. The big reveal we’ve been anticipating fails to satisfy. It’s an answer you might have predicted early on but dismissed for being too simple. And it makes you think maybe the film you’ve been watching wasn’t as good as you thought.