Deep Water ****
Starring: Noah Taylor, Yael Stone, Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, William McInnes
Director: Shawn Seet
In the 1970s and 80s, scores of gay men died or went missing in the North Head area of Sydney, Australia. A known cruising ground, the area was known among local gangs as an "ATM", where they could go before a night out to beat up gay men and take their money. Many of the victims would never come home. Often, these crimes were not even reported to the police and those that were resulted in no convistions. In October of last year, Australian network SBS headed up a new campaign to re-open and re-reinvestigate as many as 88 deaths, which had previously been classified as unexplained or ruled as suicide. SBS aired a documentary about many of the deaths, alongside which they debuted Deep Water, a fictionalised four-part series that dramatises the events surrounding the murders, which will now be released on DVD in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures on January 23rd.
Detective Lustigman (Yael Stone of Orange Is The New Black) is a new addition to her police homicide unit. When she and her partner Detective Manning (Noah Taylor) are called to the brutal murder of a gay man in an apartment overlooking Bondi Beach, they begin to see links to a series of murders that took place decades before. As more and more gay men die, lured to meet their killer on the Thruster app, Lustigman becomes increasingly convinced that the death of her own brother twenty-five years previously is linked to the killings, becoming obsessed with catching the killer. So too is her brother's boyfriend Oscar (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor), who begins to take tremendous risks in trying to help the investigation.
Lustigman is a compelling lead, adeptly treading the line between obsession and her duty as a police officer. Her personal connection to the murders gives her an emotional reaction that could jeopardise the whole case unless she displays real restraint, which she often finds hard to do. Her personal bond is what really gives Deep Water its heart, without which it would be difficult to relate to the same police force who had previously let all these killings slip beneath their radar. And as we explore how her own family are still struggling to deal with her brother's sexuality, we are given insight into why many of the victims' deaths were not taken any further by their next of kin. Stone gives this part real humanity, with her motherly warmth making for a compassionate character that we want to succeed.
In 2017, it's difficult to see how so many people could have been killed without anyone following it up. While it will be very difficult to prove that all 88 of the real-life cases were victims of hate crimes, it's easy to see that whatever their cause, they were allowed to continue by a police force who turned a blind eye. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in New South Wales in 1984 at the height of the AIDS crisis, so at the time of the killings there was a lot of residual hatred toward the LGBT Community. While Deep Water shows many instances of this homophobia, it goes to great lengths to ensure it depicts the shift in attitude amongst most Australians toward gay people today, including a large climactic scene occurring during Sydney Mardi Gras. But it also explores where the members of those homophobic gangs are today; what the effects are now of such violence when they were young, with some interesting depictions of how this has affected their lives and relationships.
One of Deep Water's strengths is that it does not shy away from exploring gay mens' hookup culture, depicting it without any slant of judgement from the detectives. Thruster is seen as a dangerous tool the killer is using to entrap young men, but never is the blame shifted onto his victims for using the app in the first place. When the use of apps like Grindr, Hornet or Scruff form part of real-life gay hate crimes, the media often gives them a wholly negative depiction, ignoring that their use is often part of gay men's everyday lives. Similarly, Deep Water gives a wholly positive portrayal of all aspects of the Gay Community in all the angles it explores. Instead of putting gay men under the anthropological microscope, it focuses on the human tragedy of what has happened, steering very clear of sensationalising its gay content. As a result, Deep Water makes for thrilling viewing as the detectives peel back the layers of the complex homophobia in their hunt for the truth, showing gay men who meet for sex as worthy of justice as everybody else.