It is easy to think of different genres as nothing more than a set of restrictive rules but genres and the story structures that comprise them evolved out of a desire to explore particular ideas in particular ways. While this in no way means that contemporary genres are ‘complete’ and impossible to improve upon, it does mean that combining genres is not something to be undertaken lightly as chances are that hybrids will simply wind up disappointing their audience on multiple levels, which brings us to Kieran Darcy-Smith’s debut feature Wish You Were Here, an exotic thriller that desperately tries to be a kitchen sink drama only to fall somewhere in the middle.
The film opens with a discretely pregnant woman named Alice (Felicity Price) reclining on a beach while a handsomely stubbled man named Jeremy (Anthony Starr) explains that his ultimate fantasy would be to live on the beach in Cambodia. From there, Darcy-Smith transports us back and forth between a Cambodian holiday featuring two Australian couples and the aftermath of said holiday in which it transpires that Jeremy has disappeared. Structured like a mystery, the film teases us with the details of Jeremy’s disappearance while Alice, her husband Dave (Joel Edgerton) and sister Steph (Teresa Palmer) begin to tear themselves apart over the tissue of lies that their lives have become.
Wish You Were Here uses the same narrative structure as dozens of mysteries including Don Siegel’s magnificent The Killers. In principle, the central investigation should not only tie the two timeframes together but also set up a rhythm in which revelations from the past unlock complexities in the present and suck the audience further and further into the characters’ tortured worlds. The problem is that, in order for this narrative structure to function properly, the drip feed of revelations needs to be carefully paced and each new revelation should be something of a surprise that reveals new things about the characters and encourages us to view them in a different light. Mess either of these elements up and the narrative will misfire and this is precisely what happens in Wish You Were Here.
The central problem with Wish You Were Here is that while the film is built around a mysterious disappearance, neither the director nor his co-writer Felicity Price has much interest in the mystery per se. Ludicrously under-written and completely predictable, the mystery of Jeremy’s disappearance exists solely as an excuse for a series of long-drawn out scenes in which Felicity Price and Joel Edgerton explore characters too shallow to sustain a 90-minute film.
Darcy-Smith’s mistake lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the differences between mysteries and dramas: The focus of a mystery is on leading the audience through a particular narrative while the focus of a drama is on unravelling the complexities of character. While psychological mysteries can sustain a hybridisation of the two genres, Wish You Were Here is ultimately a story about a missing tourist and not an exploration of why the characters are the way that they are. As you would expect from a plot structured around a missing person narrative, the characters only have as much depth as that central mystery requires meaning that while Darcy-Smith gives his actors vast amounts of time in which to explore their characters, the characters they are exploring are neither particularly deep nor particularly interesting. If Darcy-Smith wanted to direct a character-based drama then he should have written a script about character and not about an extraneous mystery. In a way, it’s a bit like turning up at the cinema to watch Avengers 2 only to discover that the director has decided to focus on the inner life of the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier. There’s nothing wrong with making a film about the bloke who drives the aircraft carrier but if you do then at least go to the trouble of working from a script that explores the character’s background and how they got recruited into SHIELD. Don’t just turn on the camera, leave them emote and expect the audience to be as fascinated by the results as the people doing the acting! That would make for a dull Avengers 2 and it certainly makes for a dull Wish You Were Here.
Aside from being under-written and self-indulgent, Wish You Were Here also embodies some problematic attitudes towards non-white cultures.
It is always worrying when a group of white people make a film set in a predominantly non-white country and decide to illustrate their choice of exotic location with a montage featuring a colourful marketplace. This lapse into cliché always signals a regrettable willingness to pander to audience expectations and relax into the collection of lazy stereotypes comprising your average white person’s vision of non-white cultures: Oh they’re so colourful! So exotic! So beautiful! So poor! Even more worrying is the moment when the brightly coloured marketplace filled with exotic fruits and decoratively impoverished children gives way to glimpses of a dark underworld comprising maimed beggars, unattractive sex workers and locals who wander around with machetes and machineguns: Oh they’re so corrupt! So brutal! So wanton! Really little more than a collection of increasingly hostile and racist clichés, this transition from beautiful exoticism to ugly exoticism signals a desire to move beyond simple pandering and out into the realms of outright exploitation where entire non-white cultures are (to paraphrase the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe) reduced to little more than set dressing for the unravelling of white middle-class lives.
Wish You Were Here may be gorgeous to look at and contain some eye-catching performances but the film would have been immeasurably better had Darcy-Smith dumped the mystery along with the jolly to Cambodia and focused upon the meat of the drama: A Story about people who suddenly realise that they are no longer in love and are living a lie. As director and co-writer, Kieran Darcy-Smith could easily have chosen to tell that story but instead he decided to produce a limp racist mess.