Having spent the vast majority of the 20th century in cinema’s outback, the Australian film industry is finally beginning to shake off its tattered image after a renaissance of sorts; after the success of titles stretching back to The Dish, Priscilla Queen Of The Desert and Muriel’s Wedding up to more recent fare The Proposition and this year’s Animal Kingdom, decades of being solely defined by Crocodile Dundee may finally be over.
More than worthy of joining this illustrious line is Patrick Hughes’s Red Hill, a bold contemporary Kangaroo Western notable for its strong aesthetic and confident vision; hardly surprising when Hughes takes writer, producer, editor and director credits.
Set in a tiny rural town so small its entire commercial centre fits snugly into a single street, purposefully echoing the Monument Valley and New Mexico of the 19th century, police officer Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) would be forgiven for thinking it the ideal place for his wife to relax before the impending arrival of their first child. However, when an Aboriginal convict, Jimmy Conway (the menacing Tom E. Lewis), sporting a gruesome burn on the left side of his face, escapes from prison and embarks on a revenge mission against Old Bill (Steve Bisley), the local sheriff, and his militia, Cooper must find the strength in himself to pull the trigger, a reluctance to do so which cost him dearly in a failed attempt to apprehend a teenage criminal in the past. Not the only character with a troubled history, Cooper soon finds not everything is at seems in his new home and discovers the best method to administer justice is not always the easiest.
What Red Hill lacks in ‘originality’ it certainly makes up for in style and pace, clocking in at a brisk 96 minutes. The use of its sparse, unpopulated country setting provides ample opportunities to drum up tension, its abandoned landscapes the perfect hiding place for a deranged killer bent on evening the score. Despite borrowing heavily from the Hollywood mould of the ‘outlaw Western’, both in narrative and visual terms, Hughes steers proceedings with such skill he ably avoids pastiche, infusing the story with the uniquely Australian cultural dilemma of colonial versus indigenous Aborigines, explored in Conway’s mysterious obsession with wiping out the local law enforcement, a ragtag bunch of rednecks and bigots.
A thrilling piece of pure cinema, Red Hill is an extremely entertaining ride with plenty of heart-in-your-mouth moments, not to mention several scenes which will have you involuntarily jumping out of your seat. A triumphant take on the post-modern Western, Red Hill is a startling debut that proves, once again, the genre is far from dead: it’s very much alive.