Thirteen years after Memento, 19 after Pulp Fiction, and a decade after 21 Grams, jumbling a film’s chronology no longer feels passé nor excitingly unique. It’s just another trick of the trade, successfully employed by some, unsuccessfully by others. As demonstrated in the elusive new Australian drama Wish You Were Here, one of the better rationales for telling a story out of order is that it can create a thrilling sense of disorientation. A mystery that keeps folding in on itself, this first feature from actor-turned-filmmaker Kieran Darcy-Smith oscillates without warning between two timeframes. A pervasive mood of paranoia and unease overwhelms any immediate understanding of what’s going on. It’s fun to feel lost, at least for a spell.
The film begins in Cambodia, with a blissful blur of montage, as two vacationing Aussie couples take in the sights, sounds, and nightlife. (With a tweak in tone, this could be the prelude to another Hangover sequel, or the run-up to an Eli Roth bloodbath.) Flash forward a few days, and only three of the tourists—family man Joel Edgerton, his wife Felicity Price, and her younger sister Teresa Palmer—have returned to Sydney. A fourth, Palmer’s boyfriend (Antony Starr), has disappeared. What happened during their ill-fated getaway? That’s the question around which Wish You Were Here pivots. Moving fluidly from past to present and back again, Darcy-Smith teases out slivers of information. What the characters know, or don’t know, is only gradually conveyed. Tensions flare up, the by-product of spilled beans. In its best moments, the film plays like one of Atom Egoyan’s non-linear, puzzle-box melodramas.
Here’s the problem with puzzles, though: Eventually, they have to be solved. And, perhaps inevitably, the completed picture here is more banal than the manner in which it’s slowly, carefully revealed. (That’s not even mentioning the mild xenophobia to which the film’s climax plays.) Once all the layers have been peeled back, all that’s left to admire are the performances. Price, who co-wrote the script, and Edgerton, who proves his strong work in Warrior was no fluke, paint a credible portrait of domesticity crumbling under the weight of too many secrets. That’s a story worth telling, in or out of order.