For Good
Judith Dale, Illusions Winter 2004

This new movie written and directed by Stuart McKenzie invokes a scene that is part of New Zealand mythology: the abduction, rape and murder of a young woman in a rural setting. Popular opinion continues to be divided vehemently over appropriate sentencing for violent crime, over whether 'for life' should mean just that, and, if so, in what terms. The ambiguity in the film's title reminds me of another ambivalent aphorism, 'for better, for worse, till death us do part' (whoever the us may be). If For Good means simply 'for ever', here it initially seems ironic: for whose good? What is a 'good' length of time for a sentence in such a case? In the bad old days, it undoubtedly meant the verdict that 'death-us-do-part'.

Preliminary advertising described the movie as something of an 'answering call' to Miranda Harcourt's earlier stage piece Verbatim, written with William Brandt and funded by the NZ Justice Department as part of its commitment to restorative justice. Verbatim toured prisons in Aotearoa, London and New South Wales to acclaim in 1993-5, and was awarded a Media Peace Prize. Like Verbatim, For Good emerged from intensive research-interviews with victims and prison inmates and their wider families, and set up expectations of further discussion of issues around sentencing for the (erst-while capital) offences of rape and murder – here by exploring the viewpoint(s) of the victim and/or her family.

Cinematically, in terms of narrative and as a feature film necessarily appealing to the tastes of the wider movie-going public, the story centres on a young woman, Lisa Pearce, aged twenty-three, whose life has become fixated around a murder that happened when she – like the victim Tracy Hall – was thirteen. They had once met, as childhood competitors in a horse-riding contest, and in many respects Lisa's fixation is real enough, as anyone who has dealt with the trauma occasioned in other young people near and far at such a time will know.

Material advertising the film suggested that we see Lisa as a brave young woman confronting popular mythologies of fear and sexual violence. As the story opens it's clear that she is entirely fixated on the murderer himself, obsessively and even perhaps sexually – though it's not really clear why, nor whether this marks a shift or new stage in her attitude. She believes he will be willing to tell her, and tell for the first time, his side of the story: why he did it, what it was really like for him, and how he feels about it now. If this is the material of Verbatim revisited, it has also the rather conventional ramifications of a thriller: what will happen; how safe is she; might he turn on her?

She comes to Wellington to pursue these ends, finds a flat and a new (male) flat mate, and sets about contacting the murderer Grant Wilson (played by Tim Balme) now in Mount Crawford awaiting a decision on parole. By passing initially as a journalist she manipulates a series of interviews with him, persuading him to allow her to tape their conversations 'to protect both of us', and the story develops from there. She – dishonestly – agrees to deliver a letter for him addressed to the parents of his victim. (Do I call him 'Wilson' at this point, or 'Grant' as she does?) When Wilson is granted parole this takes us, with him, into a small town called Reid in rural New Zealand under the shadow of a line of wind turbines – not too far, perhaps, from Eketahuna.

For Good is also a story about parents and children. Lisa becomes embroiled with Tracy's parents. Fleur and Donald Hall, which allows us to see a little of the on-going effect the murder of their daughter has had on them. Lisa's own parents are summoned by her anxious flatmate. In addition the film offers a glimpse of Grant Wilson's partner's isolation, in an unforgettable portrayal of his now-estranged wife Mel (Hera Dunleavy), along with Wilson's own obsession, as a parent, with their son whom he last saw as a three-year-old. And by now Lisa has relationships of various sorts with three young men of her own generation.

The movie's central problematic lies – for me – in the curious attraction that murderer and victim are presented as having for each other. This is cleverly achieved by the device of 'revisiting' their identities ten years later, by having Lisa identify herself with the dead girl to the extent of saying that she is Tracy, initially to her out-of-his-depth flatmate, then to the prisoner she is visiting, then even to Tracy's parents. I don't think this interesting manoeuvre is as corny as it sounds. Psychologically such a degree of obsession is credible, and as a narrative device it exploits a particularly creative use of cinematic reconstructions, memory and flashback.

More importantly, the casting and performance of Michelle Langstone as Lisa is crucial. That the performance is so beautifully conceived and consistently carried through, and with such a degree of authenticity, itself creates the issues one is faced with. Lisa is presented as a really lovely young woman, feminine in the pseudo-passively manipulative sense that belies a focussed determination to achieve her own ends. But what are her ends? Her actions are foreground by her sexuality in nearly every context, from a 'friendly' kiss given to her flatmate as he's cleaning his teeth ("No it's not" says a nerdish Adam Gardiner), to the way she playfully comes on to the lad delivering towels to her hotel room in Reid, and even to her easy rapprochement with Tracy's father Donald Hall (Tim Gordon). This sequence of views of her endorses – at least potentially – the uncomfortable sense that she is presented as a nymphet, above all in her burgeoning relationship with Grant Wilson.

In feminist terms, therefore, does one castigate this characterisation as unfortunately – or unforgivably – buying into misogynist stereotyping? Or can one (as I'm inclined to do) admire the film for its courage in taking up and taking on these social constructions? Lisa clearly enjoys her sexuality (so do we). Is this asking to be raped?

A significant number of sequences in the movie's footage are seen framed through the viewer of a hand-held video-camera (it's actually the flatmate's). In this way we are implicated in old questions about whether seeing is believing, or maybe whether believing is seeing. The use of such self-referencing cinematic techniques continues to deliver the open-endedness of the film, echoing my initial question of whether for good means for better or for worse, necessarily, notably with respect to the film-s own – and other similar – socio-political questions.

These techniques also leave open the matter of the narrative ending itself. Are the snippets we see of portrayed capture, punitive violence, and suicide, 'for real', or are they simply several among a plethora of possibilities as to the outcome of the story? Certainly everyone doesn't live happily ever after. But for me the final sequences (at least) of the film are positive and creative. Firstly Donald Hall, easily holding Wilson at gunpoint in his own living room, throws his gun aside in a (violent) gesture of 'what's the use'. Then Miranda Harcourt, who as Fleur Hall has acted magnificently throughout, confronting as she is confronted by her daughter's murderer, turns on him with her fists and pummels him as he stands there. This is a woman personally and powerfully expressing herself, and delivering her sentence. Doesn't something as small and sharply etched as that moment, notwithstanding all the surrounding open-endedness, offer us a glimpse for good?

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