Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Red Hill

Film: Red Hill (2010)
Dir: Patrick Hughes
Rating: **** out of 5 stars

The western film is a genre rarely seen anymore. Gone are the days of John Wayne and duels at high noon. This decline is probably due to audiences' general lack of interest in period pieces. But Westerns do not necessarily have to take place in the Old West. A film need only encompass the themes of a western to fit the genre, though a rural setting does help. Australia is an ideal location to set a modern western because much of the country is still undeveloped, sparsely populated, and even dangerous. The “wild wild west” of yesteryear is now the great Australian outback. Patrick Hughes must have recognized this when he made Red Hill, a cleverly-written and action-packed western set in a small Australian town.

Australian police constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) moves from the big city to a (literally) one-horse town called Red Hill. Here he hopes to find peace and quiet for him and his pregnant wife. Cooper is immediately disliked by his boss, gruff Chief Inspector “Old Bill” for being a doe-eyed city slicker with an aversion to violence. Cooper is barely in town for a day when the news breaks of an explosion at a nearby prison. One particularly dangerous convict is reported to have escaped – Jimmy Conway, who was put away for life by Old Bill. The locals gather up their guns and brace for a visit from Jimmy who, as Bill puts it, “is coming back to town and bringing Hell with him.” Cooper finds himself in the middle of a firestorm as Jimmy indeed wreaks havoc on the small town and unveils some of its dark history along the way.

Writer/director Patrick Hughes brings back revenge westerns in a big way with his feature film debut. The movie recalls gritty classics by Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Hughes’ story hits all the genres familiar clich├ęs but in the best possible way: we get the dark stranger riding into town; the honorable protagonist (appropriately named Shane) defending truth and justice; and a town with so many secrets it is practically a character unto itself. These are old archetypes and the story is a bit predictable, but the script is tightly written and steeped in Australian history.

The film subtly addresses issues such as the impact of industrialization on Australian natural resources and the treatment of the native Aborigines. The script has a surprising amount of depth for an action-packed western. There is even a strong visual metaphor in the film that can easily be misunderstood if one does not consider the deeper themes of the story. It is a bit heavy-handed, and the film probably could have omitted it altogether, but Hughes had good intentions.

Kwanten is best known for playing resident heartthrob Jason Stackhouse on HBO’s “True Blood.” The Aussie actor is one of the best parts of that television show, completely disappearing into the role of the Southern bad boy. In Red Hill, he further proves his acting chops as wet-behind-the-ears Constable Cooper. He fulfills the familiar role of an honest lawman thrust into strange territory up against an unstoppable menace. Kwanten makes a good action star without sacrificing charm and sensitivity. Cooper prefers diplomacy to a bullet, much to the chagrin of his new co-workers, but they underestimate his ability to lay down the law.

As Jimmy Conway, Tommy Lewis (The Proposition) is one frightening, badass villain. With a scarred face and a black leather duster, he rides into Red Hill looking for the men who put him behind bars, prepared to strike down anyone who stands in his way. Another great performance comes from Steve Bisley (Mad Max) as Old Bill. As the local authority with whom Cooper butts heads, Bisley gets to be something of a villain himself. He is crotchety veteran of the force who is set in his old ways, which can be a dangerous thing for a fish-out-of-water like Cooper.

Red Hill has some stunning cinematography courtesy of Tim Hudson. The wild Australian landscape makes the perfect setting for a violent western, and Hudson knows how to shoot it beautifully. Dmitri Golovko’s score also sets the mood just right for a bloody clash down under.

The film is produced by Wolf Creek director Greg Mclean, who is often credited with revitalizing Australian genre films. Perhaps that distinction would be better reserved for Patrick Hughes. While Mclean’s horror movie attempted (poorly) to revisit the Ozpolitation trend of the 1970s/1980s, Hughes’ western is helping to put Australia back on the map as a source for solid cinema. The writer/director has a strong future ahead of him and hopefully there is the truth to the rumor that Red Hill is only part one of a thematic trilogy.


Sean D. said...

Nice review for a great movie. I really hope Hughes does make the trilogy. In the meantime, I'll be following anything else he's involved with. As for Red Hill, I'm ready to watch it again.