Hail isn’t a true story, not exactly, but there’s a lot to it that feels real. The sagging wires on the Hill Hoist; the ancient suede jacket Danny wears; the worn-increases of Leanne’s face: filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson takes in all these with a documentarian’s eye, showing us the fine details of Danny and Leanne’s life.
Strictly speaking, these things are, in fact, real: the stars of Hail, Daniel P. Jones and Leanne Letch, aren’t actors, and the film begins in their actual home. Dan is, like his character, a man with a chequered past, and wears the faded-blue gaol tattoos to prove it. Dan and Amiel met as part of a theatre program for people recently released from prison, and it’s Dan’s anecdotes that formed the basis for Hail’s story.
The film neither sympathises with nor condemns Danny; he doesn’t seem like the kind of man with much interest in sympathy anyway. Newly free, he’s looking to rebuild his life, and looking for work in local panel shops. If this story sounds familiar, you’re not alone, but rather than being a straightforward tale of redemption, Hail walks a much more complex line.
The pace of the film’s first half is leisurely, almost unfocused, as Danny drifts between straight life and petty crime (is there anything more Aussie than selling stolen DVD players the pokie room of a pub?). He and Leanne have some rough moments, too, as Danny’s frustration with work puts stress on their relationship. There’s never any doubt, though, that they love each other. The performances of the two leads are natural and deeply felt, with none of the pretence usually involved in acting. There’s a beautiful scene early on, in which Danny feels self-conscious about his dentures, that positively sings with love and tenderness.
All this set-up makes it hit harder when Danny finds Leanne dead; Dan’s desperate, confused howls go way beyond method acting to touch something primal.
The film shifts gears, and Danny gets harder, going on a quest to find the man he thinks responsible for Leanne’s death. The dialogue dries up, and Courtin-Wilson’s direction delves into more and more abstract moments as we see Danny’s mind torn apart by monomaniacal rage. The close-ups, which started out intimate bordering on intense, become suffocating and brutal. The violence that defines the second part of the film isn’t shocking because it’s gratuitous (much of it happens off-screen or out of frame), but because we can feel Danny’s desperation, and the pain that feeds it. Dan is terrifying and captivating in equal parts, holding on to just enough humanity that we can identify with him even as he goes further and further into the extremes of his damaged psyche.
To call Hail unsettling is probably an understatement, but it’s also raw and beautiful. It lingers with you long afterward, even if only in that it makes you look at the Dannys around you with fresh eyes.