Psychosis (2023)

Psychosis seen at Panic Fest 

“The voices are louder today, their tone tinged with a sense of caution that’s hard to ignore. Despite this, Cliff Van Aarle is looking forward to his fourth coffee of the morning, and his first for today’s peculiar meeting.” 

So says the unseen – but very frequently heard – Narrator (Lindsay Dunn) near the beginning of Psychosis, shortly after a chorus of other voices, both male and female, has been heard vying for the attention of Cliff (Derryn Amoroso) with expressions of appetite (“You need more caffeine”) and anxiety (“You used to have standards”). Cliff suffers from something like schizophrenia, and the Narrator, who offers constant third-person commentary on Cliff’s adventures with jaunty authority as though they were a work of detective fiction, is only the most dominant and coherent of multiple voices in Cliff’s head that he keeps somewhat under control with copious quantities of coffee. Cliff is not unlike the protagonists of Takashi Miike’s MPD Psycho (2000) and Johnnie To’s Mad Detective (2007) – for the “unique perspective” afforded by his heightened “unconscious awareness” not only brings an unusual intuition and insight to his investigations, but also takes the otherwise familiar tropes of genre for a refreshingly hallucinatory spin.

Cliff’s psychiatric problems go back to family: a father who performed cruel mind-altering experiments which left not only Cliff with permanent paracusia but also his sister Louisa (Louise Byrne) in a coma. Now, hoping to pay for Louisa’s medical care, Cliff offers his special skills to solve peculiar cases.  On this occasion, up-and-coming drug dealers Brodie McAllister (Henry Errington), Aaron Birch (Michael Wilkop) and No-Arms (Mark Healy) hire him to find out why they are being violently attacked by zombie-like strangers. As clues lead to a mysterious, possibly mythic criminal mastermind named Joubini (James McCluskey-Garcia) and to powers of hypnotic manipulation that surpass even those of Cliff’s late father, our damaged hero will be propelled by his resourceful friend and agent Hess (Kate Holly Hall), by the kickass vigilante LoneWolf (Pj van Gyen) – the Batman to Joubini’s Scarecrow – and by a lot of coffee, towards a final confrontation that takes place equally in a remote outback bunker, and in the hidden depths of his own mind.


“The links between my internal senses and external perceptions are somewhat blurred,” Cliff explains to the dealers who have hired him, “I hear my own thoughts as though they’re other people’s voices speaking to me.” Cliff’s idiosyncratic point-of-view is replicated by the film’s mannered modes of presentation: not just the cacophonous chorus of voices on the soundtrack, but also an extremely tight aspect ratio (even more squared-off than Academy ratio, with the frame slightly taller than it is long) to capture Cliff’s narrow tunnel vision, black and white (with very occasional intrusions of bright colour) to suggest his merely partial access to reality, and a long sequence where Cliff is hung upside down, with his worldview as inverted literally as elsewhere it is metaphorically.

The result is a disorienting take on film noir, as distorting stylisations and unhinged plotting play out like nightmares in a damaged brain, hoodwinking and gaslighting the viewer from any sure grip on what is going on. It might be that Cliff is taking on a masked, Mabuse-like master mesmerist who holds the entire criminal underworld in his metaphorical tentacles – or it might just be that our addled ‘tec is working imaginatively through his daddy issues in a medicated haze, not unlike the way his catatonic sister in her hospital bed is “currently experiencing a fully realised reality fo her own, confined entirely within her own mind, as real to her as this room is to him.”

Working miracles from what appears to be a very low-budget, writer/director Pirie Martin’s feature debut transforms Adelaide and its environs into a monochrome labyrinth of the mind, and marks another impressive entry, alongside Danny and Michael Philippou’s Talk To Me (2023) and the films of Alice Maio Mackay, in South Australia’s New Wave of genre cinema.

strap: In Pirie Martin’s disorienting, noirish psychodrama, a damaged man who hears voices must confront a monster of the mind

© Anton Bitel