It’s a complaint about Australian film that never goes away – thoughtful, some would say pretentious, dramas can get funding, but no one wants to watch them. Well-executed genre films can pull in the punters, but can’t get funding. The accusation is that arts funding is controlled by snooty inner-city elites, who know what movies they want made in Australia but happen to disagree with 90% of the viewing public.
No film is cited more in the debate than 2005’s Wolf Creek, written and directed by Greg McLean. The brutal but compelling and brilliantly executed film, loosely based on the killings of serial killer Ivan Milat, gave Australian film a stunning commercial success that also made waves in the UK and North America, while telling an authentically Australian story in an Australian voice.
This is perhaps the best starting point to talk about Red Hill. Like Wolf Creek, Red Hill borrows genre conventions and slick execution, but is telling a story with its roots deep in Australian culture.
The film follows a young police officer, Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten), on his first day working in the eponymous small town of Red Hill. Cooper is treated with open contempt by his new boss Old Bill (Steve Bisley), but is soon drafted into service when the town gets news that Aboriginal convicted murderer and former local Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis) has escaped from prison and may be on his way to town.
There’s endless potential in combining Australian elements with Western conventions, as Nick Cave’s The Proposition showed in 2005, and Red Hill writer and director Patrick Hughes is clearly keenly aware of this. Shooting in Omeo, Victoria, a town which once had a population in the thousands and now has less than 500 residents, he blends themes of rural decay and isolation with the hot-button issue of Aboriginal revenge, to make a tight revenge thriller with a cathartic conclusion
The production values are fantastic, considering Red Hill’s AUD$3 million budget. The performances are all compelling and convincing, although some of the scripting feels slightly contrived and hokey, and the town hall scene early in the film feels particularly clunky, underwritten and undershot.
These are minor quibbles. Red Hill is both compelling and enjoyable, and tells a story that deserves a hearing at the same time. A worthy use of time for any Western fan, and a must-see for anyone with an interest in the direction of Australian film.