You need momentum to swerve. After all, it’s hard to change course if you were never going anywhere in the first place. Yet that’s what the Australian thriller Swerve attempts to do, again and again. The ingredients for a propulsive story are all here: A suitcase full of drug money turns up in a dusty Outback town, a potentially crooked cop (Jason Clarke) scrambles to protect it, and a femme fatale (Emma Booth) schemes to abscond with it. But writer/director Craig Lahiff wastes these pieces, muddling through a series of supposed turning points without establishing a sense of direction. Aimlessness can be its own fun—like doing doughnuts in a parking lot—and the opening-scene face-off between a pair of cutthroat drug dealers suggests that the movie will embrace a vigorous, loopy spirit. Before long, though, the vigor fades, giving Swerve an energy less like a sports car laying down a circle of rubber and more like a baseball manager scuffling around home plate, kicking up dust to no apparent effect.
This prevailing malaise helps explain why Swerve has languished on the shelf for so long—the movie premiered in mid-2011 but is only hitting American theaters now. Maybe the mild rise of Clarke’s star, after he appeared in Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby, made distributors feel the time was right to cash in whatever chips Swerve might hold. Clarke’s performance is indeed one of the movie’s few admirable qualities. His frontier sheriff has charm with a mysterious edge, at first. Once the cop’s temper problems come to light, he’s just sputtering, spinning rage. Faced with such one-note material, Clarke pushes the anger button harder, having decided that he’ll fake it till he makes it. He doesn’t quite make it.
That’s more than can be said for his co-stars, who don’t quite fake it. Booth, playing Clarke’s discontented wife with heavy-lidded boredom, doesn’t appear to care whether the audience believes her many circuitous lies. David Lyons gives an accordingly listless performance as the hapless traveler, passing through town, who gets caught up in the drug-money intrigue. He’s the pawn, yet he comes off as more of a spectator, one whose signature move is to stare off into the middle distance.
Swerve invites that uncertain gaze from its audience, too. It wants viewers to look past the current scene in anticipation of what comes next. Lahiff yearns to deliver the payoff—the movie is built to evoke a feeling of exhilarating disorientation—but he struggles. Each new chapter brings a plot twist as odd as it is mundane, so with time, any sense of anticipation gives way to mere hope that some compelling through-line will emerge. That hope, too, is dashed, and after an hour, Swerve has accrued so many disparate fragments that Lahiff scrambles to make them cohere for the final act. He attempts to solve his problem by placing all of the players on a moving train. The idea seems to be that the inherent tension of this action-movie staple will obscure all the plot housekeeping that Swerve has to do.
In practice, the housekeeping is more interesting than the train, because it’s fun to watch Swerve try to make something of itself. The film often resolves a loose end with a limp throwaway line, in keeping with the overall stumbling rhythm. But on occasion, Swerve doubles down on the confusion. In one extended fit of exposition, the cop’s wife acquires so many potential motives that it feels like the characters are reading the notes from a story brainstorm rather than a script. And then there is the ending, which takes all the plot threads and throws them to the wind with a contrived “Maybe all of this was for naught!” capper. Swerve thus falls prey to the moral of its own story: If you do nothing but swerve, you’ll end up right where you started—which, in this case, is nowhere.