Matt Richards, “The Disappearance of Willie Bingham” (2015)
A truly unsettling short realist film about a bureaucracy gone insanely inhuman, pandering to the lowest common denominator in Western cultural ethics, this Australian psychological horror piece justifies wading through much dross on the Omeleto channel. Prisoner Willie Bingham (Kevin Dee) has been selected by the State of Victoria to undergo a new kind of punishment for having killed a child while intoxicated: the punishment involves the participation of the victim’s family who can demand that Bingham undergo a series of amputations while family members watch. The victim’s father (Tim Ferris) requests that Bingham’s left hand be chopped off first. After this operation, Bingham is then taken by his prison supervisor George Morton (Gregory J Fryer) and the police on a circuit of primary and secondary schools to demonstrate to youngsters the consequences of committing serious crimes: they too can expect to undergo progressive amputation. Over time, Bingham suffers more amputations: his right hand goes, then his left leg, and various organs also disappear. With each operation, the victim’s sisters refuse to watch and leave, and the father steadily becomes more disheveled. Bingham’s mental state deteriorates with each operation as well until he becomes completely traumatised, withdrawn and uncommunicative.
The acting is excellent and Dee’s performance as Bingham is heart-rendingly pathetic, not least because there is a possibility that he is innocent of several charges against him relating to the rape and murder of the child victim. As the convicted criminal in a prison system that has been largely privatised, pandering to public calls for Old Testament eye-for-an-eye vengeance against those deemed to have committed unspeakable crimes, Bingham has no say in his punishment and is caught up in a spiral of a relentless and deranged prison bureaucracy that acts with a demonic life of its own. The film does not say who ultimately is responsible for having set this Kafkaesque machine system in progress, literally chewing through each and every prisoner guilty of a serious crime. At the end of the film, Bingham is left a literal husk.
Other characters fare little better than Bingham: the victim’s father undergoes degradation as well and ironically appears to reach a state similar to Bingham’s initial state when he murdered the child. (One almost expects a late plot twist in which the father admits to the crime.) Bingham’s supervisor Fryer appears a broken man by the end of the film as he resignedly takes Bingham on yet another circus tour of various schools. The high school students view Bingham as a figure to be made fun of. What lessons they might learn are very different from what they are supposed to learn. Yet the bureaucracy carrying out the progressive amputation punishments on Bingham and others like him continues regardless.
Aside from obvious questions about how the State should deal with heinous acts of crime and the people who commit them, and whether effective justice can be served by the punishments attached to these crimes, there is a wider issue of the potential consequences of privatising prisons and other functions of the State, opening up these privatised functions to the whims of the general public and pandering to people’s emotions and instincts rather than their reason. The horrific, dehumanising effects of such privatisation and a populist approach to punishing prison inmates, on inmates, prison administrators, victims’ families and the people who carry out the progressive punishments are made plain to the audience. Even the supposed benefits of the punishments are questionable.
Much of the film’s power comes from its plausibility and its realist tone. All the characters are to some extent stereotypes and audiences can very readily identify with these stereotypes. The plot is very original but its inevitable and relentless trajectory cannot sustain a running time much longer than 15 minutes. For a film of its type to work, it needs to bring in philosophical issues about the role of the State in delivering justice to victims of crimes, in deciding the appropriate levels and types of punishments for crimes, and in accepting (or outsourcing) responsibility for imprisoning people and punishing them. The film also needs to say something about the nature of a society that enables an inhumane system of punishment exploiting emotions and desire for revenge and extreme punishments to exist and thrive.