Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, appears as an oblique talisman in Breath, Simon Baker’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s award-winning 2008 novel. We see it first when thirteen-year-old Bruce ‘Pikelet’ Pike (Samson Coulter) sits quietly reading in his high school library. Some months pass and the book reappears: Pikelet pictured clutching the battered Penguin paperback as he walks through the schoolyard.
Conrad’s story of a journey into the African jungle is an exploration of fear—Marlow’s journey out into the world becomes a journey into the bleakest corners of his heart and soul. Set in the late 1970s, Breath offers its own untamed horizons for exploration, both internal and external around the rugged south Western Australia coastline; Denmark standing in for the fictional milling town of Sawyer. For Pikelet and his best friend, fourteen-year-old Ivan ‘Loonie’ Loon (Ben Spence), new vistas open when they taste the freedom gurgling in the surf and each becomes involved in increasingly risky feats of self-discovery. Rising and receding waves suggest the push-pull of what excites and alarms them about growing up. ‘I dare you to dare me,’ Loonie tells Pikelet, demarcating the psychological terrain of their friendship.
Breath begins underwater. A voiceover—Winton’s own voice—of an older Pikelet looking back tells us that he ‘learned about fear’ from his friend Loonie, on occasions like this, at the bottom of the river, holding their breath. They are testing each other, competitive but playful. It won’t be the last time. The sequence, with its austere soundscape, and confused knot of adolescent limbs and underwater plants, conveys both a sense of grace and danger—two parallel experiences that inform much of the film.
Back on dry land, we see that the boys’ lives are less balletic but not much louder. Pikelet lives with his parents (played by Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake), in a comfortable home of meat and three veg dinners. Pikelet’s dad likes to go fishing on the river, uneasy about venturing out into open waters; Loonie’s dad (Jacek Koman), has a pub and, as an early black eye on Loonie’s face suggests, a fist that frequently connects with his son’s face. ‘I love your mum,’ Loonie tells Pikelet, and with no mother of his own, his vulnerable need is exposed when he asks her to kiss him goodnight the way she does her son. Pikelet, in the film’s earliest sequences, shows us he’s a quiet, solitary boy. His friendship with the more audacious Loonie, whom he’s often seen shadowing, pushes him to test the limitations of this loving but passive, weatherboard world.
Loonie behaves as if he has nothing to lose; Pikelet like he has everything to gain. This is Baker’s first film as director, although he took the reins of a number of episodes of the long-running American television series, The Mentalist (2008-2015), in which he starred. In Breath, he carefully juxtaposes the boys’ limitations with the possibilities outside them, by exploring landscapes, external and internal, physical and emotional. With its long grasses, tangled tree trunks, and woolly coastlines, Breath presents a physical landscape that is wild, lonely, and ever shifting. Cinematographers Marden Dean and Rick Rifici capture the beauty and wonder here; the ocean, in particular, a sharp contrast to life at home for both boys: a wide, open space upon which each might be released or destroyed or both. On one of their journeys out into the wilderness, the boys catch sight of surfers suspended on the sea. ‘Never had I seen something so beautiful, so pointless and elegant, as if dancing on water was the best thing a man could do,’ the older Pikelet tells us. Something elemental and spiritual uncoils in their bellies, and soon enough, they are addicted to the triumphant adrenaline highs that come with surrendering their slight bodies to the waves.
While we see little of Loonie’s home life beyond what we infer from his various physical injuries, for Pikelet, the ocean is the absolute opposite of the family home, a space so restrictive that he can hear his father’s nightly snoring from the other room. The boys take up surfing with an almost religious fervour. As Pikelet tells us, ‘we’d already imagined ourselves into a different life.’ The landscape of their world immediately expands. They fashion rudimentary boards from Styrofoam before they can afford an upgrade. Baker lingers over their devotion. We see them waxing their boards; Loonie so enamoured he kisses his. As Pikelet explains, everything becomes about surfing for them from that point on. Nothing else is as joyous.
The ground shifts again when Pikelet and Loonie meet Bill ‘Sando’ Sanderson (played by Baker), a former champion surfer living with his American wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) not far from the coast. Part oceanic mystic, part benevolent father figure, Sando takes the two grommets under his wing, pushing them into deeper waters and pitting them against each other in the process. The landscape immediately becomes rougher, more intense. Psychically, the stakes are raised for Pikelet and Loonie too—from exploring a ‘big coast out that way, full of surprises,’ to being taunted about whether they have ‘the nads’ to swim in shark-infested waters.
Sando repeatedly plays on the boys’ fears of being ‘ordinary’ by offering them more extreme waves and invocations of the divine. Loonie finds himself with a broken arm not long before the trio is set to surf the notoriously challenging Old Smoky, so Pikelet and Sando head out alone. But as they inch closer to the giant waves, Pikelet panics. An extended sequence focused on Pikelet’s breathing—heavy, hyperventilating—shows a body pushed to its very limits, in the nebulous space between life and death. Pikelet eventually stands up straighter than ever before on his board and rides. But a later episode of heavy breathing, at the threshold of an even more treacherous wave, is a turning point—in an act of defiance he decides not to surf, not to heed Sando and Loonie’s taunts, and stays put in the boat.
Pikelet is pushed into even darker emotional terrain in the film’s second half when Sando and Loonie take off alone to surf in Indonesia and he begins a sexual relationship with Eva. Like Sando, Eva likes to play games. A former champion freestyle skier with a knee injury that has grounded her, Eva initiates Pikelet sexually, and then increases the risks when she produces a pink plastic bag containing a thin belt from a drawer. Her games of erotic auto-asphyxiation make Pikelet a spectator to, and uncomfortable participant in, her risk-taking behaviour. ‘I miss being afraid,’ she says, to explain the attraction of choking herself during sex, locating it within Breath’s dominant dynamic of fear and breathlessness.
These sex games are certainly traumatic for Pikelet but Baker’s arguably too subtle direction limits the gravity of their impact. While they ricochet as decades of damage in Winton’s novel, we have far less of a sense of any lasting scars here because of what remains hidden from view. As with any adaptation of a novel to film, it’s a question of choices. Baker’s choice, along with his co-screenwriters, Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake) and Winton, to eviscerate the book’s framing device—an extended flashback that sees the middle-aged Bruce Pike propelled into memories of his youth by a traumatic event he witnesses in his work as a paramedic—also removes vital context. From the film’s opening scene, we hear Winton’s voiceover, but we have no real idea where it’s coming from or why he’s recalling these specific events now. Pikelet’s trauma is certainly accessible through the immediacy of his experience both in the ocean and in Eva’s bed. The camera stays with Pikelet after Eva first produces the bag and belt. He is teary and shaken. He eventually tells her, ‘I don’t like it,’ and refuses to participate any more. But Baker’s choice to point the camera at the back of Pikelet’s head during the very brief sex scenes, rather than showing us his face, minimises the intensity and diminishes both the terror and the thrill he experiences.
At Pikelet’s darkest moment, Baker chooses to emphasise the lightness, hope, and resilience in his heart. ‘It’s how you live with the fear that makes you who you are,’ he reflects as his adult self. Pikelet and Loonie are thrust into a physical world that facilitates their experience of emotional extremes. Loonie, we later learn, is broken by it. Pikelet claws his way back into the light. Conrad writes in Heart of Darkness that life is ‘like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker.’ Pikelet chooses to live in that bright space. When relations with Eva come to a stunning end, Pikelet, fearless and reckless, tackles Old Smoky alone. He’s quickly thrown from his board. There’s a momentary sense of foreboding; that the landscape, and Pikelet’s dark heart might swallow him whole, as he plunges into the deep. But he eventually rises to the surface. An aerial shot, held high above Pikelet’s body, provides some perspective—a solitary black figure floating in a sapphire expanse. Pikelet is oriented celestially, surrendering himself towards the light.
Joanna Di Mattia is an award-winning film critic based in Melbourne, Australia. She is a regular contributor to Senses of Cinema, Screen Education, ACMI and SBS Movies.