Occasionally, if you walk into a movie late, what’s happening on screen can look more dramatic and intriguing than if you’d seen it from the beginning. Forced to watch the characters without the usual labels (neighbor, lover, boss), you may, for a moment or two, close in on something about them — a gesture, a laugh — that’s truer to the exploratory nature of movies than if you’d already had their roles neatly pegged.
I didn’t arrive late at Little Fish, but it’s that intimate dislocation that Australian director Rowan Woods achieves. He sets up scenes that are supple, accomplished, and utterly absorbing yet leave the audience with lingering questions that only heighten our involvement. Why does Cate Blanchett, submerged in a swimming pool, look like she wishes she could stay there, and why is she working at an Asian video store? And what’s going on when Blanchett, in party-girl mode, sprawls on a couch, looking sexy and happy for the first time, as Hugo Weaving, with overly bright eyes and a goatee shaggy enough to house a colony of flies, does a dissolute dance of mock seduction?
The film isn’t being cryptic for the sake of it. Woods spends a good 45 minutes setting up an Altmanesque mosaic of characters, letting us assemble their relationships one puzzle piece at a time. But that’s because he’s showing us how these folks present themselves to each other. Little Fish, set in the Sydney suburbs, is a tale of addicts and former addicts: people either caught in the grip of heroin or trying to escape its pull. Some, like Blanchett’s 32-year-old Tracy, desperate to launch her own business, have been clean for several years, but Little Fish (the title refers to tiny fish-shaped packets of liquid smack) is less about the cruddy rituals of scoring and shooting up than it is about the junkie’s mode of being, his dependence on secrecy and lying, which can linger long after the habit has been kicked.
The moment that Tracy fibs about being okayed for a bank loan, we know she’s still caught in the drug spiral. Lionel (Weaving), her party comrade, is a retired soccer hero who turned her on to heroin and is still in its thrall, and Brad ”The Jockey” Thompson (Sam Neill), his supplier and former lover, is a criminal kingpin who spreads rot wherever he goes. It’s a shock to see Neill, in a leisure suit and comb-over, play a lethal slime, and he’s great at it. Completing the circle of sleaze is Tracy’s brother (Martin Henderson), who lost his leg in a mysterious accident, and her former flame/dope partner, a Vietnamese Australian named Jonny (Dustin Nguyen), who has just returned to Sydney to work as a stockbroker. He seems the sleekest of straight arrows — which in this film means look out. Little Fish unfolds as an urgent sprawl of fractured hopes and casual deception. The actors are terrific, especially Weaving, who plays bottoming out as a tragedy spiked with gallows humor, and Blanchett, who digs deep into the booby-trapped nature of recovery. The revelation, however, is Rowan Woods, a major filmmaker in the making.