When a young police officer, Constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten), relocates to the small high-country town of 'Red Hill’ with his pregnant wife (Claire van der Bloom), he does so in the hope of starting a new family. But when news of a prison break in the city sends the local law enforcement officers into a panic, Shane’s first day on duty quickly goes from bad to worse. Enter Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis), a convicted murderer serving life behind bars, he returns to the isolated outpost seeking revenge. Now caught in the middle of what quickly becomes a horrifying blood bath, Shane will be forced to take the law into his own hands if he is to survive.
Melbourne International Film Festival: The vengeful spectre of Jimmy Blacksmith finds a kindred spirit in a rookie country cop in debutant director Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill, an unwieldy but entertaining contemporary Down Under western.
The titular township, set in the supremely photogenic high country of rural Victoria, is under siege from go to woe. Hughes’ opening panorama of the undulating, unforgiving wilderness expertly tightens, via sharp editing and ominous sound design, onto the long faces of a herd of horses, spooked by a sense of foreboding that is emanating from the dark woods that surround them.
The tension is diluted somewhat by the cutesy introduction of big city blow-in, Constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten, delivering on the leading-man charisma he’s exuded in small screen hits Home and Away and True Blood) and his heavily pregnant wife, Alice (Claire Van Der Bloom). The pretty couple have relocated to the bush for a stress-free life after already losing a late-term child. This illogical plot development (what could be more stressful for a third-trimester woman than a life-altering 'tree-change’?) is the first of several instances in Hughes self-penned script that just don’t add up and ultimately undermine the overall impact of the film.
Hughes’ writing strengths lie in the key alpha-male figures, none more so than the township’s ornery sheriff, 'Old Bill’. Playing against the lovable rogue typecasting that he has coasted on for a few years now (The View from Greenhaven, 2008; I Love You Too, 2010; MIFF opener The Wedding Party, 2010), Steve Bisley chews the scenery and livens up the film immeasurably with his salty tongue, tough-guy posturing and wicked moustache; he is great fun to watch. The clash of wills and egos which Cooper and Bill dance to sets up a multi-tiered conflict that maintains the film’s momentum through its less compelling passages.
Red Hill breaks from a canter into a full gallop with the introduction of 'Jimmy’ Conway, an escaped convict hell-bent on avenging the injustices that saw him locked away as a young black man. As Jimmy, Tom E. Lewis returns to Australian movie screens in a role that pays homage to his breakthrough performance in Fred Schepisi’s classic The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978). Lewis towers over the film in a role of immense physicality, dark menace and, ultimately, complex humanity.
Conway’s arrival in Red Hill sparks the rain-soaked bloodbath that, as becomes plainly obvious, is the film that Hughes wanted to make. The support cast of soon-to-be-victims (with hillbilly-hick names like Slim, Earl and Rex) are dispatched with a cool, heartless precision by Jimmy and Hughes. The ultimate three-way face-off between Cooper, Jimmy and Old Bill is utterly predictable but no less riveting than it should be.
Laid on as thick as molasses, almost to the point of parody, are the visual and audio nods to the classic Hollywood western. Creating quite literally a 'one-horse town’, Hughes’ Red Hill is also home to such antiquated film references as 'the posse’ 'the six shooter’, 'the saloon’ and 'the lil’ lady’. The clichés are referenced with reverence, but there are perhaps one too many shots of handguns being reholstered and of bad guys who never hit their targets despite spraying bullets everywhere, though good guys score direct hits effortlessly.
When the VCA-trained multi-hyphenate does bring his film into the modern world, the results provide a degree of disconcerting imbalance. The violence is unrelenting – Jimmy’s unleashing of shotgun vengeance on the Red Hill police station and his accuracy with a spear and boomerang late in the film are over the top; and a strange sequence involving the appearance of a mythological panther, whilst dreamily effective, both overstates and convolutes Jimmy’s connection to the land.
Most detrimental to the film’s impact is its mid-section pacing and sense of geography. At one crucially intense moment, Cooper must walk back to the township – a journey already established as being of some distance. In that time, it would seem no other action has taken place – a fact that only serves to give the audience time to breath and, more worryingly, think. It underlines the fact that Red Hill is a film of momentary visual intensity but plot and structure shortcomings. (A malaise that is becoming worryingly familiar in Australian film; recent films that would have benefited from a stronger editor’s touch have included I Love You Too, Stone Bros., Road Train, Australia, The Tree and The Wedding Party.)
And there may be those that rankle at the film’s politics – Jimmy as the 'noble savage’ archetype, or the perceived imbalance between the film’s denouement and the reality of the white cop/black man relationship in outback Australia.
But Red Hill doesn’t take itself seriously enough to warrant that level of discussion here. It wants to be a claret-stained, muddy nod to the westerns of Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah, infused with a Strine sensibility. Though well short of the best work of the genre greats, it does provide some visceral thrills as well as ushering in a young filmmaker who will one day make a great film when provided with a more fully-realised script.