In stark contrast to the overwhelming frequency with which we witness acclaimed A-list actors who've left the land of Oz for American super-stardom grace our screens in big budget blockbusters, critical darlings or end-of-the-year awards contenders, it's an extremely rare occurrence to see the title of even one Australian film lovingly made from down under appear on the marquee of our local cineplex.
With this in mind, the fact that in 2010 not just one but indeed three movies managed to cross the seas and maneuver through the uphill journey of film festival circuits, studio contracts, theatrical distribution, thrilling reviews, positive word-of-mouth and even award consideration is a sheer triumph that's bold and inspiring enough to rival the plot of any given Hollywood underdog movie.
Yet it's particularly thrilling when you realize that unlike the colorful, feel-good celebrations of dancing to the beat of your own drummer a la few and far between past Aussie breakout hits Muriel's Wedding, Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, the provocative trio of pictures that were incidentally all released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment centered around morality driven, dark tales of crime.
Like most of the aforementioned '90s hits, The Square, Animal Kingdom and Red Hill were also all made relatively independently by first time feature directors and in the case of the latter titles, the men at the helm had only previously directed short films before taking on material either written by them or were– as in the case of Nash Edgerton's The Square penned primarily by his brother.
And despite the fact that at their core, the three are indeed crime thrillers, they're all quite different in their approach, which definitely owes to the films' success when it comes to attracting an audience. Throughout Square, Kingdom and Hill, we're never exactly sure where each filmmaker is taking us, thereby making the titles refreshing, unique and eye-opening in comparison to the stock cops and robbers movies we've been served up by studios for decades.
Although all were routinely compared to movies by American masters of the genre – most notably Scorsese, Coppola and the Coens – the Aussies, like their predecessors served their subjects well by blending genres in telling old stories of good vs. evil in a new way.
Using the basic hard boiled fiction standby plots of an unfaithful spouse, greed and murder for hire as the groundwork, Edgerton's neo-noir Square grows increasingly complex as it continues towards its inevitably ironic, dark, lose-lose showdown to tie things up in a way we didn't expect.
Complicated on a different level altogether, David Michod's sprawling Melbourne masterpiece Animal Kingdom employs elements of the western, cops and robbers fare where neither side is heroic, Greek tragedies and Shakespearean family epics in his existential odyssey of a young man at the center of it all.
Yet whereas Michod and Edgerton opted to take the fundamentals of the crime genre – namely the battle between good and evil – and complicate the hell out of it by adding in layers and subplots, Red Hill writer/director Patrick Hughes took the opposite approach via his determination to embrace simplicity to artfully tell a straightforward story of good vs. evil.
And while some have simply written off Hill as a predictable genre picture, particularly because it adheres throughout to the structure of a contemporary western, to some extent, Hughes' decision not to try and over complicate matters with excess characters and subplots made Hill the biggest cinematic risk. Namely, had the other two movies failed, they would've “gone out” with over-ambition to their credit whereas if Hill didn't work, Hughes would've been unfairly dismissed as a man who just made a western.
Granted, I'll be the first to admit that the movie's transparent tagline makes it disappointingly easy to foreshadow the biggest plot twist in the film beyond the surface level meaning. Yet, to his credit, Hughes nonetheless surprises us with the risks he takes in the way he gradually unspools the “big picture” to Constable Shane Cooper (True Blood's Ryan Kwanten) and by extension, the audience over the course of his independently made feature that's set over the course of one long, hard day.
Having survived a gunshot received in the line of duty, Cooper packs up his pregnant wife and leaves the stress of big city policing behind to offer his growing family a fresh start in a desolate, dusty town. But just like the way that nearly retired movie cops must track a serial killer during their last day on the job, on his first day of duty, Cooper finds himself in the middle of an old west standoff upon hearing that a murderous prison escapee is heading to the eponymous town of Red Hill to gun down all those responsibly for locking him up in jail.
While inspired by westerns – complete with a Morricone style score homage that plays in the last act of the picture, Red Hill is especially influenced by the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men as the returning criminal silently tracks down the posse given the order to shoot to kill in a way that rivals a horror movie wherein characters hide in an air vent or try to create an elaborate trap to catch the man.
However, Hill is far from a mere rip-off but rather a love letter to the filmmakers who’ve come before Hughes as we see nods to Mad Max and other films along the way. Likewise, as simple as the set-up is there is nonetheless something powerfully poetic about the level of passion Hughes puts on display in the execution of his fairly straightforward Red Hill.
For while ultimately in the case of the three Aussie imports, Animal Kingdom is the clear masterpiece and the film most on par with other foreign criminal epic fare like A Prophet, The Secret in Their Eyes, Ajami and City of God, overall and for sheer entertainment value, in the end it's actually Hughes' Red Hill that I feel audiences will be saddling up to view again and again.
And by doing so, hopefully viewers will send a message to studios to lasso up another installment of inventive Aussie indies to add a burst of fresh air to our increasingly stale Hollywood dominated theaters of TV show remakes and 3D gone wild.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.