"The Monkey's Mask" is an old-fashioned film noir murder mystery, complete with a hard-boiled private eye narrator, a pretty young victim, a host of nebulous suspects and a smoky, enigmatic femme fatale.
With whispered intensity, it oozes 21st Century Raymond Chandler ambiance as the detective probes the apparently gruesome strangulation slaying of a tormented poetry student, makes stunning discoveries about her sordid sex life and falls for the girl's voluptuous professor in spite of knowing full well it's a bad idea.
The film is a brilliantly modern homage to everything that was great about the golden era of gritty gumshoe flicks, with two significant twists: 1) its inventive, gorgeously coarse, full-color cityscape cinematography, and 2) the detective...is a woman.
Jill Fitzpatrick (Susie Porter) is a ruggedly beautiful 28-year-old Aussie with a slightly butch cadence of practiced but affected cool confidence. Freckled-faced and pixie-tressed, she's decidedly, youthfully feminine but tough enough to look natural in motorcycle boots, a ribbed T-shirt (no bra) and a cropped leather jacket. She also sports a scar over her left eyebrow from a scuffle with a treacherous cop in her past.
Eager to get back in the game after months without work, Jill is tapped by the parents of the dead girl (Abbie Cornish) -- a coed composer of venomous (and mediocre) sexual poetry -- to hunt for her killer after the Sydney police don't show enough interest to satisfy their grief.
What she discovers is some seriously incestuous artifice and intrigue within the city's ostentatious, intellectual poetry community -- and her ticket inside is her seductive dalliance with Diana Maitland (Kelly McGillis), a sexy, 40-something poetry lecturer with an open marriage to a slippery defense attorney several years her junior (Marton Csokas).
Directed by Australia's Samantha Lang from a novel in verse by Dorothy Porter (no relation to Susie), "The Monkey's Mask" is amazingly faithful to Chandler-like structure for a film that so clevery reinvents some of the genre's core elements. Porter provides a hardened yet superbly penetrating voice-over ("There's no drink that can take away the taste of a fresh face rotting.") and gives a subtly vulnerable, knockout performance that feminizes and humanizes everything that makes noir detectives such enduring heroes.
She's not able to detach from her emotions when she and Diana get hot and heavy in a handful of very sensual sex scenes. She can't help but be affected by the ominous videotape footage of the embittered but fragile victim's last poetry reading.
What's more, Jill is all the more fascinating a character because she's really not that gifted an investigator. She has to work frustratingly hard for her clues and sometimes reaches her revelations too late, leading to a very dangerous atmosphere as the killer begins taunting her with threatening, voice-altered messages on the answering machine at her very remote house in the very foggy mountains an hour from the city.
The reinventive splendor of "The Monkey's Mask" is handicapped slightly by a nagging logical impasse regarding where the body is found and by an ambiguous, erotic thriller-fashioned finale that is ironically anti-climactic, somewhat implausible and lacking a proper sense of peril. But this closing departure from the film's noir quintessence is the only reason I haven't given it four stars.