My Aussie double-header (insert sex joke here)*
Australia is not really known as a hub of great film, for the most part. There have been some great ones, though, like Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), in which three aboriginal sisters escape a school training them as domestic staff, intending to return to their mother. They are tracked by another aboriginal named Moodoo, played by David Gulpilil, who also appears as a tracker in another great Aussie film, The Proposition (2005), a film I have mentioned before. He plays a tracker again in the aptly titled, The Tracker (2002), in which he helps some white men locate a native Australian accused of murdering a white woman.
Before you start to think that David Gulpilil plays a tracker in every Australian film, I will move on to the two Aussie films that recently caught my attention: Red Hill (2010) and The Square (2008), not so much for their quality (both films are good, one a bit better than the other), but for their respective approaches to their genres.
Red Hill sounded like the kind of film I am intrinsically drawn to. It is a western, first and foremost, but critics had boasted noir, surreal and even horror film influences as well. Quality genre-mashing is a weakness of mine. Its story involves Officer Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) being assigned to the small town of Red Hill after being shot on duty. The local police department reacts to his presence with equal parts disdain and disinterest. The Sheriff’s name is Old Bill (Steve Bisley), and that tells you as much as you need to know about him.
At the beginning of the film there is a shot of a herd of horses grazing. Their ears perk up at sound of an explosion far off in the distance. It is the sound of murderer Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) escaping the prison Old Bill had put him in years ago. Now, he’s returning to his hometown looking to serve up a dish best served cold.
In traditional, neo-noir fashion we have a small town cop in over his head, working within a system that appears to be corrupt (neither Old Bill nor Jimmy Conway are what they seem) and a mysterious, almost otherworldly villain. The horror element, I suppose, comes from Jimmy’s systematic dispatching of his enemies and seeming invulnerability. If these all sound like fine ideas, it is because they are. The problem is the execution.
Red Hill never really goes all-in with its ideas. It never establishes a consistent tone or mood. It felt like a story crying out for more shadow play and more grit, but it’s just too timid. It even fails its primary villain. Jimmy is introduced as an unstoppable, unflinching force of nature, not unlike No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. But the more we learn of his motives and the more we see him accidentally being bad-ass (Tommy Lewis essentially sleepwalks through the movie, more due to the nature of the role than his acting ability), the less interesting he becomes. When we finally get down to the nitty-gritty,Conway’s resolution is a bit over-the-top and his final line is absolutely cringe-worthy, evoking a laugh at a moment where empathy is most crucial.
The Square is a less ambitious, but far more successful film. It doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Construction foreman Ray Yale (David Roberts) is having an affair with a younger woman who lives on the wrong side of the river that separates their properties. Her husband is a no good thug who has stowed away a fair amount of moolah in his attic and she reckons things might be better for her and Ray if they could get their hands on it. Now, I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger, but you know the rest.
This film’s been made many times and often successfully. Why watch this when I can watch Double Indemnity (1944)? Or Blood Simple (1984)? Or Out of the Past (1947)? (Wow, femmes fatale have been leading men around by their you-know-what’s for generations, haven’t they?) No real reason, I suppose. Except that sometimes it’s nice to see some fresh faces in a well-executed film that reminds you of other well-executed films. The Square just gets the vibe right.
I admire Red Hill swinging for the fences, but I think I was just in need of a well placed grounder that night. Or maybe it was the fact that The Square featured absolutely zero trackers? Did I mention that Jimmy Conway’s character is a tracker as well? Or that Tommy Lewis also shows up in The Proposition? It seems as though Australia’s a pretty small place, eh? So what’s with all the trackers?
*Side note: In case you hadn’t noticed, Insert sex joke here is, in and of itself, a sex joke.