REVIEW: Red Hill (2010) – Patrick Hughes, Ryan Kwanten

Red Hill theatrical poster

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.


REVIEW: Young Guns (1988) – Christopher Cain, Emilio Estevez

Young Guns - image property Lionsgate

Young Guns… just doesn’t work. Loosely based on the events of the 1878 Lincoln County War, this high concept blockbuster fills a roll of doomed outlaws with shallow young actors who were the time’s teen heartthrobs. It shoots for something between an action movie and a buddy comedy, but misses both marks and fails to hit any sort of happy medium.

The film opens on the ranch of English rancher John Tunstall (Terrence Stamp), who we are to believe is some kind of benevolent collector of lost boys. This group of supposedly loveable misfits, including actors Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips, call themselves The Regulators and act as cattle guards for Tunstall, who treats them as family he must educate and civilize.

They are joined by budding young outlaw Billy the Kid, Emilio Estevez at the height of his brat pack-era success and good looks.

Estevez and his character are the biggest problem with the film. Estevez’s Billy the Kid is clearly a psychopath, gleefully escalating their situation at every opportunity and executing armed and unarmed men alike. It seems there is an erroneous presumption that Estevez himself has the charisma to make the character relatable, but he’s never even close to making it work.

This wouldn’t be so bad if Young Guns aspired to be a grittily realistic period piece, but a sense that it thinks of itself as a light-hearted romp, a kind of Mighty Ducks with guns, runs disturbingly throughout, even in scenes where major characters are being shot down like flies. The horrible ‘80s rock soundtrack does nothing to help, with some truly inappropriate musical cues.

Overall, while some might look to Young Guns with a certain amount of nostalgic affection, it is not a movie which will make a substantial contribution to anyone’s life, and should be avoided if possible.

REVIEW: Unforgiven (1992) – Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman

Ned, you remember that drover I shot through the mouth and his teeth came out the back of his head? I think about him now and again. He didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot, at least nothin’ I could remember when I sobered up.

– William Munny, Unforgiven

Unforgiven. Image property Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood has made a lot of grim Westerns. His entire career was built on grim. So you’ll understand I mean something when I say Unforgiven is a whole new kind of grim.

Only the third Western to ever receive the Academy Award for Best Picture, Unforgiven deconstructs many of the agreed conventions of exactly the terse gunfighting films that Eastwood made his name in.

Eastwood’s character, William Munny, plays a “known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition”, who settled down as a farmer after falling in love and getting married. Years later, his wife is dead, and theKansaspig farm he depends on to support his two children is failing.

In these dire straits, when a young braggart styling himself the ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) comes to enlist his help collecting a $1000 bounty on two cowboys who cut and disfigured a prostitute in Big Whiskey, Wyoming. Munny refuses at first, but eventually enlists his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to take the job.

In Big Whiskey, however, town sheriff and former gunfighter Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) is determined to maintain the peace, no matter who he has to brutalise or kill.

At its core, Unforgiven is an indictment of the conventional Western’s portrayal of violence. There are no clean, fair fights in this film, and the losers do not simply drop out of frame with a pained expression – nor do they generally deserve to die. Morality is always ambiguous. For example, of the two cowboys Munny set out to kill, only one actually disfigured the prostitute, while the other actually tried to stop him, and is genuinely remorseful, trying to give her a prize pony to make amends. He, of course, is the one who dies the ugliest death, with a bullet through his belly, screaming at first for water and then just from pain. The message is that vigilante justice is sloppy justice, and doesn’t deserve the glory it has been assigned.

An inspired element is the inclusion of Saul Rubinek as W.W. Beauchamp. Beauchamp is a chubby, bespectacled writer who has come from the east with fanboyish stars in his eyes for the Wild West of the dime novels. Initially following gunfighter English Bob as his biographer, he soon loses his innocence about the noble duels he had expected to see, and is too terrified to ever touch a gun himself, which could itself be taken as a rebuke to Western fans.

The film also uses Beauchamp to explore an element of human nature often ignored in the Western – the natural inhibition against killing. This is a point the film makes again and again, as often the difference between living and dying is simply the reluctance to kill another human being. At Unforgiven’s heart is the overwhelming weight of taking another human life, a weight which settles heavily on all the film’s characters.

Clint Eastwood actually saved the concept for Unforgiven for over a decade, and has said it “summarised everything I feel about the Western.” It is certainly a great achievement, with a cutting edge production and shooting style for its time that presaged The Proposition, Deadwood, and indeed all recent Westerns with any gravitas.

The question is should Unforgiven’s devastating deconstruction of the Western affect our appreciation of the rest of the genre? It’s worth remembering that Eastwood did some of his best work knowing that Unforgiven was in his future. As much as it has something important to say about mortality, about guilt and the value of human life, that’s not to say it should detract from the escapist value of the Western in general. Still, Unforgiven is a must-see for any Western fan.

NEWS: Trailer for AMC’s upcoming series Hell on Wheels

AMC has released a trailer for its upcoming Western series based in the Reconstruction-era South, Hell On Wheels.

The series, which was picked up for a 10-episode run in December, will follow the quest of former Confederate soldier and slave owner Cullen Bohannan (played by Anson Mount) to avenge the rape and murder of his wife by Union soldiers. It will recreate the construction of the Union Pacific transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, and attempt a Deadwood-like portrayal of the violent bacchanal that was the travelling collection of saloons, gambling houses and brothels known as ‘Hell on Wheels’, where the railroad workers spent their money and free time. The series promises to explore the gaping wounds of a nation coming out of a civil war, and the volatile post-emancipation Reconstruction era.

It looks good. AMC has built an outstanding reputation for quality serialised drama with Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead (all of which you should watch if you haven’t already), and can be presumed a safe pair of hands for this potentially epic story. The trailer certainly suggests they’ve got the production design down, with both the authenticity and grim and gritty style modern we’ve come to expect from modern Westerns.

The series is currently shooting with an expected North American air date late this year. For  antipodean peons like myself, I suggest picking the show up on DVD. No, I have not heard of this BitTorrent of which you speak.

NEWS: Tarantino to direct spaghetti Western

Tarantino in Sukijaki Western Django

Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill director Quentin Tarantino’s next film will be a Western, in news that should delight all lovers of the genre.

Tarantino will both write and direct the film, which will be titled Django Unchained. Like the Tarantino-produced Japanese spaghetti Western homage Western Sukiyaki Django, Django Unchained is expected to be partly based on the 1966 Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero.

The infamously violent Western starred Nero as the eponymous Django, a drifter who dragged a coffin everywhere with a machine gun inside. Nero has said he will be in the film himself, but whether he will reprise the role or simply appear as a minor character is unclear.

News of Tarantino’s film was first leaked with the working title ‘A Southern’, but the front page of the finished script was leaked last week, marked as completed on April 26.  Plot details are scarce, but Christoph Waltz, whose powerhouse performance as SS Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds shot him to stardom, has reportedly been cast as a German bounty hunter who teams with an escaped slave to rescue the slave’s former wife from a Southern plantation.

More solid production information from Deadline says the film is casting quickly and will shoot before the end of the year.

Tarantino is well-known for his love for disregarded and underappreciated genres, and particularly for the post-Leone Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s. Although it’s never wise to get too excited about a project from such scant details, in this case some enthusiasm could be excused.

Hat tip AV Club, HitFix and Deadline.