Thursday 12 May 2011

Aussie rules: "Red Hill"

Patrick Hughes' Red Hill is a contemporary Australian Western so classical in its observance of the unities of time and place that it names its hero after one of the key works, and one of the key actors, of the genre. Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten, the buffed boy Stackhouse on TV's True Blood) leaves behind his pregnant wife in their new home and sets off for his first day as deputy sheriff in the titular backwater, a town so generally quiet it literally qualifies for one-horse status. This, however, will be the most eventful day Red Hill has witnessed in decades. TV news in the sheriff's office excitedly talks up an explosive prison break led by one Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis), a disfigured Aborigine deemed likely to return to this area with payback on his mind. While riding his beat on the aforementioned horse, Cooper uncovers evidence a predator in the range of a large panther is on the loose, savaging the local livestock. And all weather reports point to the fact a storm is set to blow in before night falls. People, this is how to set a movie up.

Joe Cornish could learn a lot from Red Hill. Attack the Block, from first frame to last a fanboy's movie, was content merely to quote from other scenarios, which is why it comes to feel bitty and trivial. Red Hill, a movie movie, restates an entire genre - its claims to permanence, its essential visual and narrative pleasures - which makes it a far more substantial viewing proposition. Hughes comes out of advertising, but we shouldn't hold it against him: he's entirely alert to the frissons that follow from the sound of horseshoes on Main Street in the dead of night, or the sight of a hero with demons of his to conquer (as we learn, Coop moved to the country from the city, having been shot by a troubled youth his better instincts told him to help) proving himself capable in battle, even as he's blooded by it. A late shot of one character firing directly at the camera would appear a direct lift from the cinema's first Western, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, from 1903. (Now that's a quote.)

Yet the presence of a "safe" Aboriginal waxwork in the the window of Red Hill's information centre suggests Hughes's film is also about something, other than its director's boyish enthusiasms, or his desire to set box-office tills ringing: the still evident tensions between Australia's white and indigenous communities. The casting of the talismanic Lewis, occupant of the murderous title role in 1978's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, comprises a loaded gesture in itself, an expression of shock and dismay the country should still be working out its heritage issues a further three decades on. Cue the sequence where Jimmy Conway lures the lawmakers out into the bush, exacting a substantial part of his bloody revenge with the traditional spear and boomerang. Not so safe now - Red Hill is suddenly invaded by reality, and a ghost its older inhabitants had thought long confined to its past.

Though the film moves at whipsmart pace, Hughes allows himself to stage unusual, slowpoke shootouts - Cooper has clearly defined issues with guns, to the point where he'd rather leave his own weapon at home - and finds leftfield solutions to his own loose ends: the pay-off with the panther is especially effective, coming as it does at a crucial plot juncture. Much of its impact, however, is down to meaty, satisfying character business: the bluff, non-PC sheriff (veteran Steve Bisley, terrific) whose insularity and defence of his territory extends to nixing a proposed food and wine conference, on the grounds it'll be full of "fuckin' wankers drinking Pinot", or Conway's sly, subtly winning way of combining his killing spree with a quest for those pleasures denied to him behind bars - blithely demolishing a cream cake as one of his cop victims bleeds out, or cueing a favourite rock song on a jukebox just prior to shooting up the local watering hole.

Red Hill opens nationwide tomorrow.

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