I have long been a fan of Guy Pearce, whose penchant for taking on small but meaningful roles has created one of the most diverse and surprising resumes for an actor of his caliber. Each week in 2020, I’ll be reviewing one of my Guy’s films, exploring his wild career.
In The Hard Word, Guy Pearce plays Dale, the eldest of three bank robbing brothers whose collective creed is “Nobody gets hurt.” Their elaborate heists involve costuming, cleverness and, when the chips are down, a few unloaded guns to get their point across. Frank (Robert Taylor) is their lawyer / middleman, who discovers possible jobs and supplies intel on targets. Everything is going well for the trio; Dale even found the love of his life in a femme fatale wife named Carol (Rachel Griffiths). That is, until they end up in prison.
Some time later, Frank returns, dressed in his usual high-priced suit, with the heist of a lifetime and the right police connections to get the brothers out of prison just in time to pull it off. Dale knows Frank is a scumbag — probably the reason they ended up in prison and also likely to betray them after the job is complete. But Carol’s still out there — still involved in the game — and for a woman like that? He’d do anything. What he doesn’t know is that Carol and Frank are now an item, and he can’t trust her, either.
Equipped with a prosthetic nose, Pearce is pretty great as Dale. It’s jarring at first to see the same mannerisms he employs in most of his surliest roles behind a slightly different face. Slightly twisted mouth, sassy upturned glance, hard unamused stare. On balance, the makeup choice is neither here nor there, more trivia than anything: The Hard Word or, “that one where Guy Pearce wears a fake nose to harden his features because he’s too handsome to be considered a rough guy.” I suppose my review of A Christmas Carol does put a lot of weight on how his good looks create empathy for Scrooge when none should be felt, so maybe Pearce was onto something here.
Joel Edgerton (at the start of his film career) appears as Dale’s younger brother, Shane, who is the most aggressive of the three brothers. There’s a clever plot twist with his character just before the heist that I appreciated because it undercuts the usual outcome of an “over-aggressive” crew member being put into a tight situation. Damien Richardson, an Australian soap star who reunited with Pearce a decade later for the Jack Irish series, plays the softest of the brothers, a good-natured man with a passion for cooking and kindness. There are several very graphic sequences of sausage-making.
Despite all-around good performances, The Hard Word never becomes interesting for more than brief bursts. Writer-director Scott Roberts (who doesn’t seem to have any credits after this) wears his classic noir influences on his sleeve, but rarely achieves enough aesthetic momentum to carry anything but the action sequences. Worse, his handling of the Dale-Frank-Carol love triangle is never intense enough to feel like anything but a foregone conclusion due to the film’s lighthearted approach to the material. There’s no way the two lovers won’t reunite, but the movie spends a lot of time trying to convince the audience otherwise. A lot of time.
Still, Roberts’ film alive with the elaborate heist and subsequent escape, assisted by David Thrussell’s score. I first watched The Hard Word a decade ago, during my first exploration of Pearce’s career, and have always remembered the chase through the streets. It’s good. Also good are the brief bits of comedy scattered throughout — mostly visual, sometimes via dialogue that comes across as funny because it’s trying desperately to be hard. For example: “Well, that depends on if you spoofed all over the toothbrush while your mother was knocking at the bathroom door” is one of Pearce’s first lines. It’s not even the silliest “badass” introduction we’ll see him saddled with, but Lockout is an entirely separate essay.