Some have compared The Straits to HBO’s The Sopranos and Copolla’s Godfather films. Many features of these and similar antecedents appear: violence; family tensions, rival gangs, tribal and ethnic affiliations, competing loyalties, the lure and danger of outsiders; religion, old fashioned patriarchs, strong and exploited women; lawyers, guns and money. Make no mistake, however, The Straits is a poor imitation of the best the genre has to offer. Almost every episode, The Sopranos provided plots and characters, dialogue and acting which fans eagerly analysed, quoted and admired. The Godfather’s ‘offer you can’t refuse’ is now vernacular; the complex interaction of the over- and under-worlds it portrayed a given. Plots and characterisation in The Straits are lame and improbable. The acting is far from the riveting performances in The Sopranos, or, closer to home, the Australian film Animal Kingdom.1 And for all the glossy location shots, exotic animals and presence of Islanders, there is no meaningful sense or exploration of place.
The series does, however, pick up and run with the contemporary preoccupations of crime and criminal justice. In the past 30 years, transnational crime has emerged as a major concern of politicians, academics and police, spawning a host of new laws and police powers. Crimes at the border — or, more accurately, the counter measures purportedly aimed at these crimes — have significantly enhanced the prestige and resources of the Australian Federal Police and boosted the fortunes of politicians manipulating the border as a vulnerable site, a symbol to promote the politics of fear. The far north provides the ideal staging post for the cross border crimes — smuggling people, wildlife and guns; sex and drug trafficking — in which the Montebello family engage. Mainland Cairns, the Torres Strait archipelago and Papua New Guinea provide the routes for the illicit flows of goods, animals and people.
The Straits picks up a number of the standard tropes of transnational crime. The first is the link between these crimes and ethnic ‘outsiders’ — outside the white mainstream, that is. Apart from the family patriarch, who is inexplicably English and the white outlaw motorcycle gang the ‘Demon Cheaters’ or ‘DCs’, most of the other criminal agents are a mix of Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and Papua New Guinean Raskols. But despite the frequent use of ‘bro’ and ‘cuz’, the writing doesn’t really engage with these diverse cultural groups — except stereotypically. On one sea journey, one of the Montebellos rescues a lone asylum-seeker floating in an esky. The Sri Lankan man becomes a comedic Gunga Din, a source of humour that relies in part on his accent, his plight trivialised, his humanity reduced to cliché. Here, The Straits becomes dire.
A striking feature of The Straits is the absence of effective law enforcement: indeed, the promotion for the series refers to ‘a lawless frontier’. The DCs are the Montebello’s only real rivals; when the police make a rare appearance they are easily outwitted, or corrupt. One Montebello brother goes to prison, but only because his mother persuades him to confess to a murder as a way of dealing with the DCs. Once the DCs are sorted out, the brother easily escapes from a prison van using a can-opener, visits his family at home despite a police stake-out by going around the back and hiding behind a tree, and then successfully fools police with a ridiculous wig while on the run. The inadequacy of the police and law in the series may be an antidote to the always competent and successful crime fighters of CSI but they are just as unrealistic and improbable. Connected to this absence is an absence of consequence for any action: characters recover from wounds, torture and exile seemingly in days. So, too, The Straits: unrealistic, improbable, inconsequential.
JUDE McCULLOCH is in Criminology in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University. Her book (co-edited with Sharon Pickering) Borders and Crime will be published by Pan Macmillan later in 2012.
1. See review by Jude McCulloch in (2010) 35(4) Alternative Law Journal, 253.