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Briar patch

Crime investigation only half the story of Lantana

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The impressive Australian psychological drama Lantana takes its name from a flowering bush whose handsome leaves and blossoms conceal a thick, thorny undergrowth. We get a good, long look at lantana in the film's introductory tracking shot, which moves over the lush shrubbery, then sinks down, parting the leaves to discover the dead body of a woman below.

Director Ray Lawrence may be paying homage to the early scene in Blue Velvet. Both shots convey the notion of violence beneath placid surfaces, and Lantana is also concerned with the thicket of relationships, both aboveboard and unknown, through which people maneuver every day.

The introduction primes you for a murder mystery, but Lantana has so much on its mind it forgets about the corpse for at least an hour. The first character we meet is Leon Zat (Anthony LaPaglia), a Sydney police detective prone to attack perpetrators and be attacked by his own weak heart. Leon is dragged by his wife Sonya (Kerry Armstrong) to salsa dance lessons, which also are attended by his mistress Jane (Rachael Blake).

Sonya wonders if Leon is unfaithful and admits her suspicions to her psychiatrist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), who has problems of her own. Valerie has just published a memoir about her murdered daughter and worries about her secretive husband John (Geoffrey Rush). Lantana's dramatis personae also include Jane's estranged husband and her neighbors, a happy but poor married couple with three kids.

No one in Lantana's ensemble is more than a few degrees of separation from another, and the disparate plot threads knit together like the script of a Robert Altman film. The characters travel on trajectories that don't just intersect, but collide head-on -- literally -- so when Leon, out jogging, crashes into a pedestrian, the ensuing confrontation is made up of blood, sweat and tears.

Halfway through the film, one of the characters vanishes following a late-night traffic accident, which shifts the plot and emotional pitch into a higher gear, like a British police procedural. Leon investigates the disappearance, while Jane becomes an unexpected eyewitness and, in a quiet, Hitchcockian scene, is nearly caught while retrieving a piece of evidence from a Lantana shrub.

LaPaglia makes a credibly brooding bloke. He gives Leon an innate sadness that makes the character sympathetic despite his brutality and deceptions: Leon knows he behaves badly, yet he can't seem to make his better nature more available to himself or others.

Leon and Jane's responses to the mystery story are motivated as much by their own feelings about other people as their concern over the crime itself -- if there even was one. Leon sneers at the bad marriages of his suspects without (openly) acknowledging his own faults.

Never predictable, the film refuses to tie off its loose ends, resolving some conflicts while leaving some mysteries unknown. Not quite like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, the experience of Lantana is like anticipating the shapes of the puzzle pieces you'll need, even though you doubt you'll ever perceive the whole picture.

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