Carl Fitzgerald (Sam Neill) wakes up one morning and wanders outside to stamp on a couple of cans that were rolling around outside, keeping him from a peaceful slumber. When he wanders back in, he sees his mother (Yvonne Lawley) lying on the floor with her head in the oven and alarmed, he starts calling out, but it's all right, she was just cleaning it and tells him off for the poor state of hygeine in his house. She then announces that she will be staying with him for a while, something he cannot protest about, and besides, he has a new job as a cook in a nightclub to worry about...
One of the most vivid portrayals of a loser ever to grace the screen, Death in Brunswick was a modest black comedy from the pens of director John Ruane and his co-writer Boyd Oxlade. If you were used to seeing Neill as a collected, even suave performer in his other films, this was quite a revelation as he fits the role of a downtrodden pushover with surprising ease and you can really believe Carl hasn't a hope in hell of making anything of himself, though funnily enough if you asked him, he would probably tell you he thought he was in hell already.
You can practically smell the grime in this film, so seedy are the locations Ruane found for his shoot, and the kitchen Carl ends up working in is running with cockroaches, with the food verging towards the mouldy - any health inspector would have a fit. Despite his muted protests, everyone at this nightclub calls him Cookie, but if his boss, Laurie (Boris Brkic), is a petty thug and probable gangster, not to mention a bully, then there is a ray of sunshine amidst all this gloom, and she is nineteen-year-old barmaid Sophie (Zoe Carides). Carl may be closer to twice her age than he would care to admit, but he falls for her nevertheless.
And these feelings are reciprocated, with Sophie asking him out on a date which with amusing awfulness turns out to be accompanying her kid cousin to an afternoon showing of The Marsupials: Howling III, with Carl the oldest audience member there by far. One thing leads to another, and soon he is of the opinion that he is her boyfriend, unaware that she is engaged to be married to one of the club staff. Everything in this film is designed to keep its protagonist down, and soon he is wrapped up in dodgy dealings with his kitchen helper Mustafa (Nick Lathouris) - dodgy in that after he witnesses the man being beaten up, Carl accidentally kills him when he staggers towards him in a daze.
This leads to the height of bad taste comedy, a level that the director seems keen to reach and stick with, where Carl has to call his best friend Dave (New Zealand comedian John Clarke) to help him hide the body. The film gets a lot of mileage over how squeamish Carl is, throwing up at every opportunity as they take the corpse to the graveyard where Dave works and dispose of it in one of the (used) coffins. Really Death in Brunswick needed a sprightlier touch, as so dejected does the plot become that you have to be in a particularly sunny mood to keep laughing at the stream of mishaps Carl suffers, and as a thriller it moves far too slowly. But to its benefit, Neill keeps you engrossed with his queasy desperation, and the last minute turn to religion as Carl's salvation is as bizarre as it is novel (but sincere? Only maybe). Music by Phil Judd and Peter Volaris.