‘Red Hill’ – Movie Review

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.

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5 thoughts on “‘Red Hill’ – Movie Review”

  1. I saw it the other night at popcorn taxi.

    I thought it was pretty obvious where Jimmy acquired the boomerang and spear.

    As Ryan’s character pulled up in his car he pauses to see the burning flames on top of the hill, he then noticed that the Aboriginal Mannequin display had been smashed.

    There was a close up of the mannequin body parts littered across the street.

  2. Were you watching the screen,

    Yep, fair enough – I didn’t make the connection between the spear and boomerang, and the smashed window of the shop with the aboriginal mannequin display. The message of that scene, to me, was that Jimmy had smashed the mannequin in angry protest against the twee depiction of ‘the aboriginal’ – a stark contrast with the grim reality of his experience. I still think that was the main intention of that scene. And in any case, it’s surely very far-fetched that a shop display would feature genuine traditional weapons. More likely the boomerang would be some cheap lightweight souvenir made in China!

    Forgivable, but little flaws like these detract from the work, and are one of the points of difference between GREAT writer/directors, like the Coens at their best, and up and comers like Hughes. Not dissing Hughes here – his future is ahead of him…but he hasn’t arrived yet.

    Since you’ve opened up the topic of logic issues, how about Jimmy’s sudden change of clothes from prison greens to full-length oilskin and his other dramatic gear? Looked great, but where’d he geddit?

    And that mother of a shottie, or whatever it was? How’d he come by that? And the ammo…he fired off a lot more shots than his cartridge belt held. Must have been lugging around a sizable cache somehow, to replace those in his belt.

    And why did the cops have to rely on the TV news to find out about Jimmy’s escape? The telephone lines were not down at that stage, and the city cops would have alerted the cops of Jimmy’s home town of his escape as a matter of highest priority.

    Then there’s the Dickensian fortuity of Shane happening to roll up just as one of the guilty townsfolk is about to hang himself, along with leaving a confession note, which he then elaborates on verbally – apart from the convenient timing, how come he’s managed to live with his conscience until that moment, and what’s pushed him over the edge? Jimmy hasn’t found him…and unless he blows his dirty little secret, he won’t have the law to face up to (as far as he knows). Of course, that scene has an essential expositionary function, but it’s clunky as hell. Another signifier of a writer-director in his developing phase.

    There’s more, but I’ve made my point, I believe.

  3. Um…okay seriously…did you go to the toilet a few times during the movie?

    That boomerang scene was Jimmy killing them with white man’s clichéd interpretation of the indigenous people.

    When Jimmy was about to exit the cop station he noticed the horse out front, he then turned and looked at the trench and cowboy hat on the police hat stand – There was a close up cutaway?

    As for the shottie, maybe he acquired it during his break out from prison or maybe he sourced it during the 15 years he’d been planning his escape. Throughout the film he used probably 10 rounds – From what I could see when he first arrived that ammo belt he was wearing was fully loaded with 30+ shells?

    As for the comment about the red hill cops not getting a call from the prison officials – It was a live feed on television, breaking news? During the first TV report you clearly heard the lady reporter saying that the prison officials didn’t know if anybody had escaped following the explosion. And come to think of it, if the prison officials first phone call was to some outpost where a couple of cops put him away 15 years prior for murdering his wife that would seem a little suss… Do they know all the cops in Red Hill are corrupt?

    As for the last comment, that’s personal opinion I guess – But to me the film explored the classic western motif of the posse mentality – As a group Bisley and his men are strong but as individuals they are weak. Jimmy’s arrival into town unearths the long forgotten dirty secrets each of these men have been harboring for the last 15 years.

    I don’t care to carry on with this and I certainly don’t view Red Hill is a masterpiece but if you’re going to write about films you need to get your facts straight.

  4. So, you “don’t care to carry on with this” – all you’re interested in is asserting your take of the movie, and dissing mine? That how it is?

    Well, then, what’s the point of my putting any time into responding to the points you make – some of which have possible merit, others of which are bunk IN MY OPINION. As to which is which… well, you’re not interested in genuine discourse, are you, so I won’t bother to expand. Besides, some of your points are, frankly, unintelligible as you’ve expressed them. Spend a bit more time at Film Studies 10 and take a literacy class or two, and maybe you’ll be better able to communicate whatever you’re trying to say.

    Honestly, I get so sick of ego-ridden turkeys like you hiding behind the anonymity of the web, spouting off their self-righteous claptrap so fucking aggressively. Your type are a dime a dozen, and you know what?…I find it all so fucking tedious!

    If you’d just get the stupid bloody self-righteous aggro out of your tone (I mean, look at your choice of nick ferchrissake), we could have a decent discussion. I don’t pretend to be right in everything I say, but I do my best to review movies honestly and to give supporting evidence for my opinions. What else can any reviewer do?

    You’re free to assess my reviews any way you like, but if you’re going to simply rock up and nitpick on peripheral points and fling shit around, what sort of response do you think you’re going to get back from me? Lesson for today: as ye seek, so shall ye sow.

    Chuck your stupid attitude, and I’ll be happy to take up your points (if you can express them intelligibly) and enter a genuine discourse with you. I welcome dissenting viewpoints, but I don’t welcome barely literate twats who can’t see past their own ego. You evidently have some things to say, so why don’t you try saying them cogently and clearly without the dumb-arsed attitude? In posting as you have, with the sole agenda of undermining the other party to reinforce your own sense of being ‘Right’, you demean the interaction and block the opportunity to actually learn anything from it. Communication’s a 2 way street. Think about it!

    And think about this: there are no absolutes. With any movie, there are many interpretations and perceptions possible. That’s what makes discussion interesting! Genuine exchange can be rewarding and illuminating for both sides. Your silly aggro approach can only serve to feed your self-delusion of being irrefutably ‘Right’.

    The way you’ve been going on here, I wonder if you’re not personally connected to the filmmaker or crew in some way. You seem to have something personally invested in your views and in your reflex-jerk reaction to mine.

    Come back when you grow up, you stupid little fuck.

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