Where’s the Big Finish?: Investigating SMASH PALACE
4 September 2011
Roger Donaldson’s 1981 film Smash Palace follows Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence), owner of a junkyard for wrecked cars. While he still races car part-time, Al gave up aspirations of racing professionally to support his family. At the start of the film, Al’s simple but honest life is almost entirely centered on cars, with little time for his wife, Jacqui (Anna Maria Monticelli), and young daughter, Georgie (Greer Robson). However, the film’s catapult is Jacqui, who falls in love with Al’s best friend, Ray (Keith Aberdein), and decides to leave her husband, taking their daughter with her. Her inevitable decision redefines Al’s life. Faced with the loss of everything he once took for granted, Al begins to spiral out of control. His emotions and behavior turn erratic; he begins stalking and harassing his estranged family, even going so far as to kidnap the child and take innocent hostages at gunpoint in all out warfare by the film’s finish.
By the end of Smash Palace, Al, armed with enough artillery for a small army, finds himself trapped in a garage after taking a hostage with police all around. Although he releases the hostage, Al does not surrender; instead, he makes one last shocking move. Al takes another hostage at gunpoint, this time Ray, his former best friend, who also happens to be a member of the police squad. In his last and perhaps most suspenseful maneuver, Al’s former friend drives a restored 1920’s car out of the garage, right passed all the police officers, while Al sits in the passenger seat with a riffle aimed at his new hostage.
The men drive, with police in close pursuit, to the railroad tracks, where Al makes his hostage stop the car. With a train rapidly approaching, the audience watches, stunned, at what appears to be the climactic finish to Smash Palace. However, just as the train narrows in on the car, the track flips and the train makes a slight shift in direction, avoiding the track the car rests over. The last shot of the film is Al and Ray sitting in the car as train zooms behind them.
The ending to Smash Palace seems, at first, unsatisfying. While the film’s increasing pace of shocking events leads the audience to believe there will be a big, climactic conclusion, it does not deliver. In fact, there is no conclusion or closure at all. After seeing Al’s unraveling the audience must leave him on the tracks, completely uncertain of his future. Was he arrested? Shot? (Somehow) freed? Could he have escaped? Did he kill his hostage? Will he ever see his daughter again?
However, holding on to the belief that a well made film includes everything the audience needs, deeper reflection and perhaps re-viewing is required to find satisfaction in Smash Palace. Although the shot on the train tracks is the last one of the film, looking back into the film suggests earlier shots hold greater significance than originally assumed.
Retrospectively, Smash Palace is not the story of Al, a down-on-his-luck mechanic and part-time racer, who, in the grips of a devastating divorce, begins a series of poor decisions that slowly and irreversibly cause his life to self destruct. Smash Palace is not that clean-cut; Smash Palace is not traditional narrative cinema. The film, which is much more experimental than it seems on the surface, focuses on how catastrophic and irreversible damage is done with little warning, explanation, or effort. In large part, the film’s purpose is to unravel, without being put back together in the end.
The opening sequence becomes pivotal in retrospect. Before the audience meets Al or learns his story they see the establishing shots of a beautiful, clean white car driving the picturesque, isolated roads of New Zealand. There is not another car in sight and the bright white of the car stands out against the blue sky and land or varying, glowing browns. The car is small in comparison to the scenery, but clearly the focus of the shots. The car handles the twists and turns of the road with ease. Yet, suddenly, for no reason, the car suddenly jerks across the road, up a small bank, and flips over in an unbelievably, unpredicted crash. The film transitions seamlessly into Al’s story as the wrecked car gets towed to “Al’s Smash Palace” (his junkyard and repair ground), but the identity and fate of the driver are never revealed.
Why? Because explaining the fate of that driver, just like the fate of Al is not the film’s purpose. What is important about the opening sequence and about Al’s story is the journey, particularly the jerk in the road. It is important to see the white car driving, and a man of modest, hard-working means sacrifice his life for work and family. It is important to see the car handling the twists and turns of the road, and to see a man attempting to handle the ups and downs life throws. It is important to see the car jerk unexpectedly and crash, and equally important to see a man suddenly reach his breaking point and lose control of everything, including himself.
Smash Palace is not concerned with a satisfying conclusion or closure for its audiences. Smash Palace resists the “Hollywood” ending. You know the one. The ending answering every conceivable question an audience member could imagine, spelling out every second of the movie to prescribe some generic, usually wholesome, conclusion intended to satisfy the masses. Films with the “right” endings are quintessentially narrative; however, films like Smash Palace, ones not following the traditional formula fully, are far more interesting and thought-provoking.