The ‘hitman with a heart’ trope has been done to death, often in stories contrasting a remorseless adult killer with a sweet, wide-eyed child. That’s certainly part of Nash Edgerton’s acclaimed Sydney-set hitman series Mr Inbetween – which, like much of the director’s work, is a volatile combination of blacker-than-black comedy and itchy, edgy drama. The show is tonally in between, as it were, those two camps, capable of switching gears at any moment from ordinary low-key situations to flashes of gooseflesh-raising tension and conflict.
Edgerton is a dab hand at mining everyday situations for their dramatic and brutally amusing potential – a talent harking back to his early short films (including Spider and Bear) and his terrific 2008 feature film debut The Square, a noirish morality tale co-starring his brother Joel. Mr Inbetween isn’t often violent, and certainly not gratuitous. But the possibility of violence is always there; Edgerton understands the threat of something is more unsettling than its realisation.
Protagonist Ray Shoesmith (Scott Ryan) is a casually menacing and oddly charismatic presence, likeable though his outlook could hardly be called morally palatable: there are no speeches, for instance, about how he kills only bad guys. With a shaved head, goatee and vaguely rodent-like face, eyebrows often craned in a quizzical look, Ryan’s performance is transfixing and the camera loves him.
Navigating us in and out of danger zones, he is the human anchor in a world grittily consistent in overarching tone, but erratic in its plots and situations. Ryan’s prints are all over Mr Inbetween, as the writer, creator and star in both the show and the film that inspired it: an entertaining nano-budget 2005 mockumentary, The Magician, few people have heard of let alone seen.
Mr Inbetween’s third and final season has just landed on Binge, where this excellent, thoroughly moreish production can be, well, binged in its entirety. Season three premiered in May on FX in America and Foxtel in Australia, with new episodes landing week by week. The previous seasons became available away from Foxtel well after the premiere date. This is fine for Foxtel subscribers, who still have that old school cable box installed in their homes, but not for the growing population of television-watchers converting to streaming.
The cable company hogging the show may be one reason why Mr Inbetween doesn’t appear to have a large Australian fan base, despite great word of mouth and rave reviews. That and the fact we’re all drowning in content these days, innumerable shows, movies and streaming platforms vying for our eyeballs. The good news is you’re in for a treat if you haven’t watched Mr Inbetween yet: the show is comparable quality-wise to great Australian crime films such as Chopper and Animal Kingdom, albeit slighter and packaged in a much more episodic format.
It doesn’t take long to get sucked into Ray’s daily life, which includes minding his young daughter Brittany (Chika Yasumura), dating local ambo Ally (Brooke Satchwell), coming to the aid of his best friend Gary (Justin Rosniak) and all the, erm, occupational hazards involved in his line of work. Ray’s career as a hitman, working for his underworld boss Freddy (an excellently oily Damon Herriman), allows the script a constant passageway into dramatic scenarios with varying degrees of wildness and danger. Ray delivers the hard word to people who owe his boss money, acts as a Mr. Wolf-esque clean-up guy and delivers unfortunate parties the long kiss goodnight. You never know which direction a new job will take him or how dark the journey will get.
The comedy never stops being dramatic, one way or another, and the drama never stops being a little bit funny
The fourth episode of the second season, for instance, which is titled “Monsters”, begins with Ray consoling Brittany, who is having nightmares about monsters in her room. But the title also refers to an actual, real-life monster: a paedophile that Ray is hired to confront by a dying man (Tiriel Mora, best-known for playing the incompetent lawyer Dennis DeNuto in The Castle) who wants information about what really happened to his long-dead daughter. No spoilers, but let’s just say you won’t forget an atmospheric scene set in the tunnel of a disused railway line.
The personal moments have less stakes and more humour. For example, Ray covers for Gary after his wife finds a golden shower porno DVD (season one), exchanges fart jokes on the couch with Ally (season two) and takes his daughter to a rainforest to show her a white horse with a horn stuck on it, which he has sweetly passed off as a unicorn (season three).
The final season contains unexpected notes of pathos, mostly drawn from how the passing of time has changed (or not) the characters’ circumstances. Ray’s daughter is 12 and now has an attitude; Ray spends time in prison, giving much-needed advice to a novice inmate (Sam Cotton); and Gary (without spoiling anything) has taken his career – for want of a better word – in a different direction. Everybody’s life seems to be progressing except for Ray’s.
Menace and comedy are sometimes contained within the same sequence. In the third episode of the second season, Ray visits an actor’s house to rough him up – only to sit down for a cuppa with him and his mother. Two episodes later, he’s so outraged that Ally’s brother (played by Edgerton) has taken a toy from his daughter during Secret Santa that he throws him through a glass wall. The comedy never stops being dramatic, one way or another, and the drama never stops being a little bit funny. It’s a sly combination.
Edgerton and Scott continue a trend Tarantino (over)popularised in the ’90s: goon characters chewing the fat, exchanging pop culture-referencing conversations in between bursts of violence. In season three these discussions include analysis of whether it would be possible for Superman to accidentally have anal sex with The Invisible Man and a conversation about whether Ray would “root an alien”.
These moments are unexceptional by design: amusing but run-of-the-mill. Nevertheless, they have a purpose: they allow Edgerton to loosen the strings of intensity, so he can yank ’em back when the time is right – the give before the take. Back we go to the central tension of Mr Inbetween: the loose and innocuous versus the tense and violently dramatic. The uncomfortable dance between them never gets old and the show, after three excellent seasons, finishes in fine form.
Mr Inbetween is now streaming on Binge