Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) drowned while on an afternoon picnic with
her family. Soon after burying their daughter, the Palmers return home
to an unsettling and mysterious presence. This documentary examines the
strange case of Alice Palmer and the apparent haunting of the Palmer
home. Is Alice trying to communicate from beyond the grave and what
secrets lay buried in her untimely death? The more the family
discovers, the less they realize they knew about a daughter who had one
life for her family, one life for her friends and one secret life no
one ever knew about.
Aussie filmmaker Joel Anderson’s faux documentary is an
interesting attempt at delivering a layered mystery surrounding the
tragic death of ones child. Desperately clinging to hope that her
husband (David Pledger) has misidentified the body, Mrs. Palmer (Rosie
Traynor) is convinced that the photographic and video-taped sightings
of Alice are proof that the girl is still alive. But, the more the
evidence mounts that something surrounding the drowning is amiss, the
more red herrings keep piling up and the longer the journey becomes.
If Lake Mungo has one success it’s this, every
time the film seems to reach its apex and offer a clear-cut conclusion
to the story of Alice Palmer, Anderson jerks the proverbial rug right
out from under you and twists the tale down an entirely new stretch of
deserted Australian highway. The further from the original story we
travel, the more perverse and ultimately the more sinister the
production becomes. What lies beneath the tale of Alice Palmer? What is
actually hidden on the scores of tapes we’ve already watched? What
happened at Lake Mungo? For the most part, all of these interesting
questions are answered over the course of the 87-minute feature.
Now, I know I just said that one of the things I appreciate about the
film is all the twists and turns that Anderson peppers throughout his
script, now I’m going to tell why when all is said and done, it does a
huge disservice to the audience and the film.
The problem is that in the end, the film has achieved a revolutionary
conclusion that is fascinatingly unexplored. It all builds to this, and
then it stops. It stops with a sort of resigned notion that the Palmer
family has accepted what occurred as fact but it never really satisfies
the curiosity that piqued the audience’s interest.
At the end of the day there is a base storytelling problem existent in Lake Mungo
and it’s due to the medium with which Anderson chose to convey his
tale. By making the documentary as utterly dry and realistic as
possible, Anderson abandons most cinematic pretenses. This might be
logistically correct given the way he decided to present his film, but
it will absolutely leave some viewers displeased when the final credits
roll. It says a lot for the story that we wanted to see more of it. The
problem is we’ll never get to.
In many ways, the film is a companion piece to The Blair Witch Project and the proliferation of post Blair Witch
“found footage’ productions that exploded in the late 1990’s. But, by
being authentic to the original design you risk frustrating fans who
expect conclusions from their films. I’m not saying that I need a film
to tell me everything. In fact, I’m a bigger fan of the open
ending/non-resolution storyline than probably anyone I know and
truthfully, Lake Mungo provides an acceptable conclusion to its
tale. It’s just that when we finally get there, we’ve invested so much
in the project that we really, really want the answers. Unfortunately,
the answers we get are so immense that they cause us to ask dozens more
questions. It’s those unanticipated questions firing off in our brains
that finally make the film unsatisfying.
Lake Mungo is hardly a unique concept. Its execution seems to be
calculated and carried out according to plan. The story of Alice Palmer
is fascinating and well structured. Regrettably, so many of the forks
in Alice’s road to discovery are intriguing that the film can’t clearly
address them all. I guess the ultimate problem with Lake Mungo is that the filmmakers had too many good ideas crammed into one film and not enough time to tell all their tales.