“People are all scratching a living in this foul world of ours. Scraping and scrimping, and for what? It's work, work, work and then you're dead. I think deep down all of us would like a pallet on the floor.”
Set in the 1960s in a small, bleak coastal town where most of the men work at an industrial facility killing, skinning and freezing livestock for export; a dirty, unrewarding job that has most of the men taking hard to the bottle in order to cope. It doesn't help matters that the work is only seasonal and low wage for most of them, which makes getting by in the off-time that much more difficult. Worker Sam Jamieson (Peter McCauley) does have a few bright spots in his life, however, including marrying his pretty half-Maori bride Susan (Jillian O'Brien), who's pregnant with his child. At their wedding, drunk friend Brendon O'Keefe (Terence Cooper) stumbles outside and mysteriously falls over dead; an ominous sign of things to come.
Sam and Sue start getting harassed by the violent-tempered, racist Jack Voot (John Bach) and his equally nasty brother Joe (Marshall Napier), who are accurately referred to as "odious vermin" by one of the locals. The sons of a local politician, the Voot brothers have a bone to pick with both Sam and his new bride. For starters, Jack was once Sue's lover and is now jealous she's decided to marry someone else despite the fact he passed up the chance to marry her himself when he had the chance. Second, Joe's gossipy (married) lover Miriam (Shirley Gruar) feels burned after going gambling and losing money. She wrongly blames Sue for it and then starts demanding that Sam pay her money back.
Miriam decides to plant seeds of doubt in Sam's head about his new wife. She claims Sue is a "black tart" who was having on an affair with Brendon and that the child she's currently carrying may not be his. Miriam also has another motive: She's dead set on destroying the marriage because SHE is actually in love with Sam herself. Starting to sound like a soap opera, no?
While Sam's at a bar (surprise!) getting drunk, Jack sneaks off to their home. There, he beats Sue in the stomach and attempts to rape her. She manages to fight him off (nearly destroying their home in the process!) and flees into the woods, with Jack in hot pursuit. Luckily, Sam and three of his drinking buddies; Basil (Bruce Spence), Spud (Jeremy Stephens) and Shorty (Michael Wilson), decided to leave early that night and Sue runs into them. A fight ensues, Jack is punched, falls over, hits his head and is accidentally killed. Instead of reporting the crime to the cops, the men stage it to look like he was killed in an accident; aided by a huge stroke of luck that the truck ends up on some railroad tracks just at the right time. Good thing, too, because the local Marshall had already stumbled onto the crime scene.
However, these things never seem to go off without a hitch, do they? Miriam happened to witness the whole act play out and, with help from her equally sleazy husband Stanley (Alistair Douglas), uses the information in an attempt to blackmail Sam. They want him to sign over his property, which is about the only thing of value he owns. Sam does have the opportunity to live a simpler life with the Maori people but has thus far refused; mostly because it would make him look bad in the eyes of the mostly-racist white townsfolk. A big city detective is brought in and starts snooping around and several more "accidental" deaths occur.
Completed in 1983 and shown at the Cannes Film Market in 1984, this was given only a limited theatrical run in its home country three years after it was made. The VHS releases were also few and far between, with one in Australia (which re-titled this Murder on the Rocks) and New Zealand (on the Mirage Home Video label). I'm not aware of any others. Its obscurity is easily understandable once you actually sit through the film. This is not only a misfire, but a misfire of very limited audience appeal, and it struggles to find the right tone.
You know how it's fun to go out drinking with your buddies but not so fun to go out drinking with your buddies when you're the one who has to stay sober and drive all of them home at the end of the night? You know how your drunken buddies are all hilarious when you too are drunk but are extremely annoying whenever you have to deal with them soberly? Well, that's pretty much this film in a nutshell. We the viewer are the sober ones and every character is the obnoxious, irritating, slurring, falling down drunk friend we can't wait to ditch after a few hours. I've watched a number of films specifically about alcoholism that have less drinking and fewer pathetic and obnoxious drunks than this movie. That's all these men, even our hero, live for. First thing they do when they get up in the morning is drink. Their dialogue seems entirely centered around the characters needing a drink or going to get a drink. They drink at work, at home and while driving. They spend all of their free time in the bars sucking down liquor by the pint while simultaneously bemoaning the fact they never have any money.
But that all makes sense seeing how the author of the source novel, Ronald Hugh Morrieson, was himself an infrequently-employed (including at a freezing works as depicted in the film) and depressed drunk (ditto) who spent his entire life in his small New Zealand hometown until his own alcoholism-fueled early death in 1972. Pallet was Morrieson's fourth and final novel and wasn't even released until four years after his death. It wouldn't be until years later that his work started being reevaluated by critics and he now has a literary award named after him, though he remains mostly unknown outside of Australia and New Zealand. I'm not sure how close this is to the source novel (which reputedly was never even finished), but it honestly did little to pique my interest in the writer.
Regardless of what kind of commentary they were shooting for here and the adequate period detail, this film itself just doesn't work on any level. It's mostly an attempt at black comedy, with blubbering inebriated clods lurching around everywhere and "casual" murders and deaths no one really seems to make too much of, but it's seldom ever funny. A movie like this really needs to be outrageous and a bit over-the-top at times to work, and this is just too rooted in its depressing environment and miserable characters to achieve laughs. The characters are neither interesting nor endearing, their lives are dismal and bland (even after the killings are introduced) and the entire film is aimless, repetitive and never really seems to go anywhere. Highly uneven acting and bland visual presentation don't help matters any.
The director had previously made the Morrieson TV biography One of Those Blighters (1982) starring Bruno Lawrence as the writer. Lawrence did the music for this one and also appears in a cameo as the author, who can be seen in a bar band (Morrieson had also worked as a musician).