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Film Review: Though Macdonald and Hedlund Shine in “Dirt Music,” the Narrative is Too Often Out of Tune

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 16th, 2020

Film poster: “Dirt Music”

Dirt Music (Gregor Jordan, 2019) 2 out of 4 stars.

Buoyed by strong central performances from Kelly Macdonald (Puzzle) and Garrett Hedlund (Mudbound), Dirt Music nevertheless nearly drowns in a swamp of confused sentiment and motivation, no character emerging full intact from the turgid depths of the screenplay. Beautiful cinematography, highlighting the natural splendor of Western Australia, helps transform the narrative into something more palatable, but only so much. Despite the title, there’s neither enough true grit nor moving melody an affecting story to make. See it for the two leads, as well as the lovely cinematic travelogue, and ignore the rest.

Macdonald plays Georgie, girlfriend to widower Jim Buckridge (David Wenham, In Like Flynn), a big deal in his seaside community, where he holds a controlling stake in regional fishing interests. Despite the fancy house with the nice view, Georgie is restless, perhaps because she’s expected to mind Jim’s two young boys (though they’re likeable enough), or maybe because she just wants something else. When she discovers local outcast Lu Fox (Hedlund) illegally poaching lobsters at night, she is at first intrigued, and then smitten. He is, too, and soon they find themselves engaged in a torrid affair, even before they know each other’s names. Given provincial loyalties and suspicions, this proves to not be such a great idea.

Kelly Macdonald and Garrett Hedlund in DIRT MUSIC ©Samuel Goldwyn Films

And so our lovers are split apart as each seeks answers to the great question of what life is about. Lu is saddled with a tragic backstory told to us in sometimes moving (and sometimes clumsy) flashbacks, whereby we discover how he lost family, his love of playing music, and purpose. The more we know about his past, however, the less interesting that past becomes, the i’s dotted and t’s crossed so that no mystery remains. Georgie fares slightly better, her own previous history less explicated, but with enough there to shed light on her choices.

It’s a good thing director Gregor Jordan (Unthinkable) cast so well, as his movie’s best moments come from the fine chemistry between Macdonald and Hedlund. Each shines through a combination of gentle naturalism and restrained emotion, slowly blossoming into more fully realized versions of themselves. It’s in their wonderful harmonies that what music there is in Dirt Music is heard most clearly.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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