Wish You Were Here is a slight Australian suspense flick about a married couple, expecting their third child, who go on a tourist jaunt to sunny Cambodia with the wife’s sister and the sister’s beau. After a night of hard partying the boyfriend can’t be found. The married couple return to Australia as the girlfriend stays behind to try to find her man; when she comes back, still alone, it’s obvious that she’s hiding something–and so is her sister’s husband.
There are plenty of good things here, and in general the movie does what I wanted it to do. Secrets are revealed, foreigners turn out to be less of a problem than the stranger behind a loved one’s eyes, events spiral downward. I don’t love the way that Cambodia and its people are basically used to explore a white Australian couple’s moral lives, but that’s probably part of the price of admission to this kind of story. Two things really made the movie go beyond my expectations.
First, there’s some genuinely shocking bad behavior on display. There’s an extended sequence involving the pregnant wife which had me really gasping and on the edge of my seat for a good twenty minutes, through several changes of scene and twists of the story. There’s a willingness to “go there,” and–here’s where the movie really earned my respect–to play out all of the consequences, including penitence and forgiveness. The consequences of the characters’ actions are painful, but they don’t take the “everything just gets worse and worse forever” spiral path. I think that grim ‘n’ gritty, despairing style of storytelling can often let characters (and audiences) off the hook, since if there’s no hope of positive change then there’s no pressure to change.
The second great thing about Wish You Were Here builds on the first one. There was a moment when the screen went dark and I sort of grimaced, and slumped in my seat thinking, I wish people wouldn’t always end their stories right here. This is when it starts to get interesting!
And then the story continued. And it was interesting. The characters made a choice and had to live with that choice. We didn’t follow them as long or as intensely as I would have liked–I’d seriously watch a whole movie about what happens in the last five minutes of this one, just as I’d read a whole book that’s just the epilogue of Crime and Punishment. But so many movies today end with a sort of smash cut on a question: Whom do you believe? or, What would you do? In many cases it would be more challenging to the audience to show characters answering that question for themselves. It would stretch the audience’s imagination rather than confirming whatever we already believe about human nature.
So yes: The setup of WYWH isn’t new, but the payoff is much better than what we usually get from this kind of story.