Whenever art returns to the streets, so to speak, you know there are exciting times ahead. It happened in rock music with the punk rock of the 70s, and when poetry infused itself back into widespread social relevance through rap and hip hop. And it’s happening now with film, mostly due to the staggering advances in digital technology.
Not only is it now possible for any tech-savvy filmmaker to match the big studios with CGI and post-production, but crucially, the expenses involved are minimal. Quality software is cheap, and in some cases free, and filming in digital costs very little. That is truly liberating, flinging open the doors of opportunity for a new generation of indie filmmakers and, hopefully, heralding a new era of cinema less burdened by corporate restraints on creative parameters.
Red Hill writer/director Patrick Hughes is one of this new breed of indie filmmakers. As is the case with most first-time feature directors, Hughes had been in the industry for quite a while doing short films and commercials. Despite winning numerous awards for his work, big money backing for a feature film was not forthcoming, so he determined to follow the lead of directors he holds in high regard like the Coen Brothers and George Miller and make his first film outside the system.
He pursued a different course from most of today’s indie filmmakers. Eschewing digital, he threw his hat over the fence and bought $40,000 worth of secondhand film stock from Hollywood. Impetuous, yes, and not the sort of move yer financial adviser would recommend, but the die was cast: make it or bust. And make it he did.
Enlisting an impressive crew of industry friends and contacts and a cast prepared to give their all to this “passion project”, Hughes shot Red Hill over 24 gruelling days in freezing conditions in the Victorian highlands, then locked himself away to complete the post-production work. Major distributors pounced after the film was shown at the Berlin Film Festival.
Inspiring story, but not a singular one. Every indie film is a feat of overcoming adversity and almost insurmountable odds through enduring commitment to a dream shared by a few unstoppable people. That in itself is admirable, but all that counts for audiences is the final product. So, what of Red Hill?
Promoted as a contemporary Australian western, as with so many films of its genre it is set around a simple story of revenge.
Young city cop Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) has relocated to a small country town in the Victorian Highlands with his pregnant wife Alice (Claire van der Boom). His first day on the job is a rude awakening to country life. His despotic boss, Old Bill (Steve Bisley), a frontier sheriff type who has assumed personal possession of the town, reacts in panic when news comes through that an aboriginal felon he has put away, Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis), has escaped and is heading for town. As evening falls and a storm descends, things get very bloody indeed.
A prosaic tale, yes, but that’s OK – it’s how the story is told that matters, not the tale per se. And it’s told pretty damned well for the first half of the movie, some clumsy and unnecessary exposition notwithstanding (eg: Conway’s escape being announced to the cops via TV news, with updates). The tension builds and is maintained as Conway’s menacing presence looms large. As he picks off Old Bill’s men one by one, there is the nightmarish sense that he is ubiquitous, that there is nowhere to hide.
Midway, however, it all becomes a bit monotonous, and the narrative starts to unravel. There are the inevitable plot holes that are part of the fun of the genre, but some yawn a little too wide to ignore (for example, Conway switches weapon from shottie to traditional spear and boomerang at one point…where the hell would he come across these on the run in the middle of the night?). The resolution of the story is all very PC and a bit too easy, as well as veering uncomfortably close to sentimentality given the toughness of the characters and their environment.
The movie wears its influences unashamedly, channeling the Coens in its small town setting, redneck characters, and tension building to violent eruption. However, at their best the Coens transport the viewer into their strange and unnerving worlds; you exit the cinema as if you’ve been teleported somewhere surreal for a couple of hours, leaving in a bewildered state akin to jet-lag. Red Hill doesn’t come close to achieving anything like that, partly because the tone is inconsistent.
In the brilliant No Country For Old Men, for instance, the Coens create an integrated world informed by a psychopathic perspective that the viewer adopts, most disturbingly, as their own. They strike a strange tone that is unique and sustained from the first frame to the last. The first half of Red Hill, by contrast, plays it dead straight, then a bit of nudge nudge wink wink creeps in (eg: an escaped panther living in the remote wilds of the Highlands is inserted into the action jarringly, and for no good reason). It’s almost as if it has suddenly occurred to Hughes that he’s been taking his script a tad too seriously, and has offset this with a bit of Coens eccentricity. The stylistic continuity of the film is disrupted as a result, and the tension slackened.
The performances are all good, Steve Bisley in particular. The camerawork is top notch, exploiting the spectacular setting to the full (the opening scene of the Highland peaks rising out of early morning cloud cover is magnificent). The night scenes are ominously atmospheric. And the soundtrack is a standout.
While ‘Red Hill’ does not live up to the hype, this is a creditable – albeit uneven – directorial debut from Patrick Hughes. If he delivers on the promise he’s shown here, he’ll be one to watch out for in the future.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives