NZIFF – Amanda Peter chats with Gillian Ashurst, Director of SNAKESKIN

Bill Gosden championed countless New Zealand films during his tenure as Festival Director, and not all the obvious ones, either. Maybe it was its lust for Americana, the protagonist’s escape from southern parochialism (Bill grew up in Dunedin), or Gillian Ashurst’s darkly cartoonish take on Goodbye Pork Pie’s road movie legacy, that made him regard Snakeskin with such fondness.

Fascinated, he wrote, “I wouldn’t be surprised if, played backwards, it turns out to contain the solutions to every unsolved murder in the South Island”.

Bold, funny, sexy and macabre, Gillian Ashurst’s juicily cinematic first feature boots the cinema of unease into the new century. Alice (Melanie Lynskey) lives, to her dismay, in the outer suburbs of a flat South Island town… Why wasn’t she made in America, like… Elvis, Marilyn [or] Thelma and Louise? Everyone in New Zealand is just too boringly safe.

Alice’s cute friend Johnny (Dean O’Gorman) provides some consolation… They’ve cut the roof off his Valiant and drag up and down the straight and narrow country roads… looking for dodgy hitchhikers… They find their man in Seth, a billboard hunk of an American cowboy with snakeskin boots, a serpent tattoo and a few spare tabs of acid. Heading west becomes a matter of dodging all the people who’d like to get a piece of Seth…

Racing three cars full of badass characters across the plains… is an ambitious project for a cowgirl, but abetted by deft editing, tasty performances, stunning cinematography and passages of inspired writing, Ashurst keeps the curse of the Kiwi caper comedy at bay. Exploiting road movie dynamics and wild South Island landscapes with an expert’s love of both, she’s reanimated the spirit of Pork Pie with the sexual politics, the drugs and the pop-trash-fetishism of the noughties. — Bill Gosden

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