Details: (M), 92 mins, Australia, English
Synopsis: 1902....the Australian Federation is a year old. Twelve year-old Tom's beloved father, Nat, has dragged him and his sister, Sarah, to an isolated farm at the edge of the woods. But Nat's dream of living off the land has died and he is losing his grip on sanity. When three ex-soldiers arrive at their cabin one night Tom, like his father, believes they are providence. But their presence becomes more menacing when one of them reveals a secret: he's found gold. As the lure of gold infects everyone around him the cabin becomes a psychological battleground in which Tom's loyalty is put to the ultimate test.
Dark and sober Lucky Country is not pretty. There is a body count here and the violence when it comes, is swift and ugly. Still, for all of its bloodshed and its mordant tone of last options (all bad) it is also really quite thrilling.
Director Kriv Stenders makes the action claustrophobic. In 1902 in an Aussie bush outland, even the trees look tortured. Instead of wide rolling vistas of wooded hills, Stenders and cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin produce images that seem filtered through a scarifying mutant of contemporary Japanese horror and Grimm fairytale, where the forest takes on the aspect of a terrible beast. In this Lucky Country there is no refuge; only deadly secrets where it is a victory just to survive.
Andy Cox’s screenplay is taut, elegant and carefully plotted. It centres on the fate of failed farmer Nat (Aden Young) and his teenage family Tom (Toby Wallace) and Sarah (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence). Recently widowed, idealistic and incompetent Nat is losing his mind and his fragile state threatens the fate of his two children. When strangers enter the scenario, everything changes. Henry (Pip Miller), Carver (Neil Pigot) and Jimmy (Eamon Farren) are war veterans who happen upon Nat’s homestead, offering help. Dirty and scarred, they convey a casual menace that is frightening to Sarah, but deeply compelling to her little brother, Tom. It quickly emerges that there are tensions and unspoken betrayals within the trio of strangers – a situation that rapidly engulfs Nat’s family.
Stenders plays much of this out in short punchy scenes, often staying in close to the faces of his fine actors; this way we can feel fear, envy, lust, and danger; even if the characters can’t read each other, we can. It is the audience that first grasps the truth here; the Strangers usher Nat and his kids into the Heart of Darkness. The effect is startling and disturbing. It creates a sense of paranoia and anxious anticipation where it's possible for us to determine that is there a clear threat. As in classic horror, we wait for the innocent characters to turn tables, still, we have no idea where or how the climatic explosion of tensions will arrive, until it is too late. It's classic suspense filmmaking, the cinematic equivalent of shouting a warning of 'Look behind you!' and Stenders performs it masterfully.
If the horror film guides the visceral and emotional atmosphere of Lucky Country, it is the western that offers of a model for the plot. In Cox’s careful construction the action is supported by a political and social context of land takeovers, gold-diggers, opportunists, and the impact of a foreign war. In Lucky Country the land is savaged by greed, and overrun by technological progress (the coming of the railway), meanwhile pioneers are forgotten, the bonds of family and loyalty tested and corrupted.
This is Stenders' fourth feature since his excellent and criminally overlooked 2005 debut The Illustrated Family Doctor. Since then he’s been experimenting with low budgets, real locations and developing his already considerable skills with actors in Blacktown and the brilliant Boxing Day. Lucky Country demonstrates once more his gifts: a skill with atmosphere and a talent for eliciting lived-in performances. With Lucky Country he proves he can handle the knotty twists and curves of a genuine thriller and deliver them in a way that’s both scary and original.
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