Bill Bennett’s debut film, A Street to Die, tells the story of Colin Simpson, an Australian veteran who became the first person to successfully sue a government for exposure to Agent Orange, although the sum was only settled after his death. The film started life as a documentary, so by the time that Bennett cast Chris Haywood as Colin, and Jennifer Cluff as his wife Lorraine, he’d already immersed himself in the western Sydney suburb of Whalan where Colin lived. In fact, the film was shot at Colin’s actual house (the family living there were paid to move out for four weeks) so it’s as much a meditation on suburbia as the Vietnam War – or, rather a meditation on the connective tissue between them, since the delayed impact of Agent Orange means that it first emerges here as a ripple in the fabric and fantasy of this suburban haven.
Accordingly, the opening credits of A Street to Die follow Col and Jen with an over-the-shoulder shot as they cruise into Whalan. Through the windscreen, we see the local shops, the local train station (Mount Druitt) and finally the veterans housing where they have decided to settle down. They’ve moved from Coogee, and lost the beach, but they’ve also upgraded from an apartment to a house with the garden. Paradoxically, the suburbia-beach synergy that was so critical to Australian mythology at this time means that Col becomes more confident at the beach once he’s retreated to the suburbs. In the most pastoral sequence of the film, he parlays his newfound pride as a homeowner into a trip to the coast, where he carries Jen heroically over the sand much as he lifts her over the threshold to their new house, before they finally make love on the rocks, consummating their suburban lifestyle by the sea.
This sense of Australian manhood being defined by the twin frontiers of suburbia and sea draws heavily from They’re a Weird Mob, as does the initial eccentricity of Whalan and its inhabitants. Yet this quirkiness quickly turns awry, thanks to two perennial interruptions to this suburban tissue. On the one hand, Col and Jen are quickly greeted with a series of pregnant or inexplicable pauses. There’s a neighbour who won’t greet them despite a couple of “G’days” and a neighbour’s daughter who stares and stares due to a “chemical imbalance.” This quietness quickly extends to Col and Jen too, as in a scene when they share two big pieces of news in bed (he’s become a union rep, she’s quit her job) and then settle into a strange silence that he tries to break by shaping to hug her, only to pull back his arm at the last second.
At the same time, this bucolic suburban world is ruptured by a fractious and extroverted energy. We see it in a neighbour as she tries to rein in an unruly rooster, and then again when another neighbour aggressively insists he was a chef, rather than a cook, in Vietnam. It’s against the backdrop of this raucous hyperactivity, in the midst of a squash game, that Col notices that a third neighbour also has a rash on his arm, one of the first signs of Agent Orange poisoning. Likewise, both these silent and aggressive sides of suburbia come together in the staring young girl, who periodically smashes bottles and plates against her wall for no reason. In fact, it’s one of these manic displays that causes Col and Jen to slow down, get out, and inspect the streetscape, in front of what eventually becomes the house they opt to purchase.
Between these very quiet and very loud moments, suburbia never quite settles into a naturalistic groove, allowing the effects of Agent Orange to emerge as a gradual dissociation and dislocation of suburban textures and routines. It’s as if suburbia itself is susceptible to a cancer that Col’s presence slowly draws out. He notices that the rash has intensified while he’s putting up the first Christmas tree in their new house, as Jen unboxes the letters he wrote to her from Vietnam, and from there, every symptom further disorients him from his daily rhythms. Fatigue causes him to fall asleep on the train and wake up at Penrith instead of Mount Druitt; arm pain interrupts backyard cricket; bruises start to show up after running. Over time, this crystallises into an emasculation of suburban routines, from lumps in his groin to the final use of his love letters as evidence to track his proximity to Agent Orange drops.
These suburban textures contour the escalation of the disease as well. Initially, Col refuses to come into hospital for treatment because he’s mowing the lawn, and soon after collapses while carrying beers across the grass. His first big argument with Jen, and the only time he aggressively insists on himself as man of the house, comes when he steadfastly refuses to stop fixing the fridge, instructing her to confine herself to laundry when she tries to intervene. Rather than take her advice, he now tries to fix everything in the house, partly to prove he’s still fit, and partly so everything is fine for her when he’s gone. He’s trying to fix his own body vicariously through the suburban body politic, eventually collapsing, and having an equally vivid argument with a mate, while he tries to move the border of a rock garden out the front.
In other words, the more that Col tries to plug up this fissure in suburban normalcy, the more he reiterates it. He often jokes around when Jen tries to speak seriously about his declining health, but more often than not these stabs of humour harken back to Vietnam, as when he throws a toy helicopter her way while mock humming Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries”, in a nod to Apocalypse Now. It’s even more difficult for Col to sink back into these suburban textures in that everyone in his neighbourhood is a veteran, and everyone on his side of the street is a Vietnam vet, with the other side reserved for WWII and Korean combatants. Even as the other side of the street shines like a fantasy of what suburbia is meant to be, all the quirks and eccentricities of Col’s side gradually reveal themselves to be so many physical and psychological symptoms of Agent Orange, as each neighbour deteriorates at a similar pace, although in different ways. It’s as if we’re watching two generations colliding – a WWII generation who benefited from the suburban dream that came of age in the Baby Boomer era, and a later generation disenfranchised by it, unable to believe in its promises any more.
Rather than seeking solace in his neighbourhood, Col senses that Agent Orange is gradually defoliating suburbia in the same way as Vietnamese crops – as an ambient threat that confounds the distance and difference between home and away fronts. In the uncanniest moment in the film, he realises that dioxin, the main component of Agent Orange, is being used in his own neighborhood, by a groundskeeper who sprays it on weeds as primary school children play in sprinklers two feet away, evoking a diffuse and atomised threat that brings the Vietnam War deep into suburbia. These lapses in space gradually extend to lapses in time, and eventually bring us to the crux of the final tribunal – the question of how to prove that Agent Orange is the culprit when exposure was so diffuse, and happened so long ago. This is where the documentary core of the film peaks, as Bennett provides meticulous testimony from experts about how soldiers can ingest Agent Orange without ever being sprayed with it, along with some the practices and habits that eventually proved to be most destructive in Nam, such as throwing grenades into streams to harvest fish, or draining water off tank tops.
It’s not surprising either that Col’s local suburban practice is inadequate to deal with his condition, since what’s at stake is partly the texture of suburbia itself. His doctor, Walsea, played by Arianthe Galani, initially misdiagnoses him, putting his fatigue down to stress and too much smoking. When Walsea finds out the truth, it ruptures her own identity as a suburban practicioner, and her own sense of herself as a quilting-point in the community, to the extent that she can’t bear to give Col or Jen the news herself. Instead, she leaves them alone in her office, calls Jen from another room, instructs her to smile, then pretend she’s talking to someone else, and only tell Col the bad news once they’ve left the practice. So dislocated is Walsea that she can only give Jen advice on how to maintain a semblance of suburban normalcy at all cost, even when confronted with what is now a terminal condition.
As this scene makes clear, part of the genius of A Street to Die is to present the emergence of these Agent Orange symptoms as the extension of a dissonance that is already present in suburbia to begin with. This dissonance is baked into the very structure of Whalan, or at least Col’s street, since with WWII and Korean veterans on one side, and Vietnam veterans on the other, this is not quite a new frontier, but not quite an established precinct either. Yet this dissonance is also embedded in the very concept of suburbia itself, which Bennett frames as the fantasmatic end point of Nam – what the government is fighting for, and what individual soldiers hope to eventually return to. A Street to Die is profoundly sceptical of this war-suburbia nexus, taking some pains to emphasise that Col’s symptoms kick in as soon as he moves to Whalan, as if they’ve emanated from the fantasy of suburbia itself. Col thus charts a journey from the creature comforts of suburbia to its existential bleakness – the emptiness and coldness that suddenly emerges when you can’t identify with its seasons and routines.
At this point, A Street to Die shifts from an individual story to a systems drama, framing suburbia itself as a form of coercion, backed by a tinkling score that recalls 70s conspiracy thrillers in which people set out to discern a government conspiracy that lurks just on the fringes of perception. These eerie refrains turn into looming synth waves as Jen learns Col’s medical records have “gone missing” from their local suburban practice, and bloom into full-blown paranoia as she door-knocks every house on their side of the street, and realises everyone is affected. By this stage, A Street to Die has accrued the procedural intensity of a class action thriller, culminating with an investigative third act that could be an entire film in itself. Rather than tell that particular story in a truncated way, Bennett compresses the focus back to docudrama, spending the final scenes on what appears to be a word-for-word rendition of the Sydney tribunal that finally awarded Jen damages after Col had passed away.
This third act also crystallises a deeply Australian distrust of authority that evolves in tandem with Col’s alienation from suburbia. We see it personified by his own doctor, who insists on being called “Mr.” rather than “Dr.” but as an affectation, rather than a real gesture of modesty, since he has no bedside manner, and abruptly shuts down Col’s enquiries about the medical implications of Agent Orange. Later, the chair of the tribunal has the same traits, interrupting a critical piece of testimony to remind everyone of the etiquette around coats. Yet this scepticism never quite embitters the film, or entirely removes its quintessential Australian affection for suburbia either, even with all the existential emptiness of Col’s final days at home. The more normality falls apart, the more precious normality becomes, and the more that Col and Jen savour what can remain normal in their lives, producing a lyrical, understated and deeply empathic vision that has no need for, or interest in, cheap sentiment.
The last cipher for this deteriorating normality is betting on the races, the activity that is most synonymous with the film’s suburban textures. Racing comes to the fore as Col enters the final stages of his disease, then follows him to hospital, investing his room with a surrogate suburban normalcy once it becomes clear that he won’t go home again, despite his request to be buried in his own backyard. He’s listening to the races on the way to the hospital, tells Jen to stop at a servo so he can place a bet, arrives as the race is climaxing, bringing the other patients around his bed, then has a mock race in the hospital. Finally, he gets his lawyer to place a bet for him on the day he dies, and only then asks about how the case is proceeding.
However, these racing scenes are intercut with the most alien space and scene in the film – Jen screaming in the metallic passages of what appears to be the Domain Carpark Tunnel, light years away from every other setting we have seen so far. Back in suburbia, this kind of unbridled response is untenable, so when Col passes away, Jen resorts to the same strategy as the little girl next door – taking a stack of bowls and hurling them against her back wall. The first generation of Agent Orange dislocations were acquired physically, but Jen has now inherited them psychologically, and so the film ends by evoking an ambient trauma that continues to spread, despite the momentary catharsis of the family planting a tree over Col’s backyard grave. And, as the final intertitles remind us, in a shift back to Bennett’s original documentary project, the chemicals in Agent Orange are still used widely, all over the world, suffusing these last moments with the paranoia and dread of the best 70s conspiracy films.