Tuesday, December 7, 2010

New Release Review: Red Hill (Patrick Hughes, 2010)

Set in high country rural Australia, Red Hill, the writing/directing debut of Patrick Hughes, is a contemporary western themed thriller. The central character is Constable Shane Cooper, played by Ryan Kwanten from True Blood. Coinciding with Cooper's first day of duty at the small country town of Red Hill, a nearby prison outbreak sees convicted murderer Jimmy Conway (Tommy E. Lewis) return to Red Hill to seek revenge on Old Bill (a gravelly and bearded Steve Bisley) and his corrupt ragtag police unit.
Young and inexperienced, but thoughtful and ambitious, Cooper immediately tries to impress Bill, the towns' gruff ruler, who will have none of his naive city antics. Having relocated from the city to start a family with his pregnant wife Alice, Cooper reveals to Bill that after losing their first child during pregnancy, the move was a mandatory precaution, advised by doctors, to ensure the health of his wife. When news of the escape is received via a breaking news broadcast, the station is sent into a panic. Bill is convinced that Conway will return to Red Hill and assembles an armed posse, including some of the eager locals, and instructs them to lock down the town at several different entry points. Having first rejected the idea of protecting a particular pass, believing that Conway wouldn't consider it, Bill reluctantly asks Cooper to stake out the road. Of course, this is where Conway approaches, having coerced an elderly couple at gunpoint to drive him into town. Cooper stops the car and speaks with the couple, only to find himself looking down the barrel of Conway's sawn-off shotgun. Maneuvered to the edge of the road, he slips and falls down a steep hill, injuring himself and requiring to make his way back to town on foot, as Conway heads toward town to exert his revenge. It is never explained for much of the film why he is beset to take out the entire town. The burned and disfigured Aboriginal man is a frightening physical presence, and a former resident of Red Hill. He was locked away by Bill for the murder of his wife and is a renowned expert tracker and marksman. Having first infiltrated the station, one by one he begins to pick off the waiting marksmen in a series of bloody massacres. Cooper becomes embroiled in a deadly game of survival, as he finally returns to Red Hill and seeks out Bill.

An intriguing notion of Red Hill is the casting of Tommy Lewis to play the gun-slinging villain, Jimmy Conway (who intriguingly shares his name with Robert De Niro's character from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas). Following decades of racial discrimination toward the Aboriginal community and the Australian Governments' reluctance and subsequent failure to bring social equality for the indigenous population, this has resulted in regrettable social hardships. The first appearance of Conway, jumping out from behind a vehicle at an unsuspecting Cooper will be a formidable shock to most audiences, who will likely immediately recognize and engage with the threat. Red Hill essentially features for almost its entirety an indigenous man hunting down a town of seemingly innocent white folk and killing them in cold blood, but you must ask yourself how a film with such questionable themes was funded by Film Victoria. Because the motives for his revenge are never explained, the only plausible explanation is to assume that the true villains of the tale will be later revealed, likely the men so frightened by Conway's return. There are no real surprises, although the twist divulges into an interesting concept. Steve Bisley's character is just so repugnant that we expect him from the beginning to learn his lesson. While there are consistent moments of suspense, it all remains so predictable throughout that much of it's effectiveness is lost. The night sequences reminded me of the Coen Bros' No Country for Old Men, and Conway has a presence not dissimilar from Javier Bardem's ice cold killer, Anton Chigurh. Any further comparisons to such a fine film are difficult to find.

The opening sequences are a mess, as we are introduced to uninteresting stock characters. The plot is straight forward, unintentionally cheesy and atrociously predictable. However, through some beautifully photographed surrounding landscape, and some excellent night captures during the storm, visually it is quite impressive. It's themes are shallow, and much of the character motives are never explained. While it conforms to some clever Western genre techniques, it's uniformly cliche, with mostly ordinary performances (especially from Bisley) and often horrendous dialogue. Kwanten gives a solid performance, but he really has very little to do for most of the film. He spends most of the first half of the film scouring the treacherous terrain, as Conway makes short work of Cooper's colleagues on his lawless rampage. There were some cringe-worthy attempts at humor and what was supposed to be the films' most exciting shootout, is disappointingly accompanied by a dreadful score selection. Red Hill improves in the latter half, and it's an inspired and commendable debut that suffers from a number of bewildering decisions, and unfortunately is far too predictable to keep most viewers fully engaged. 

My Rating: 2 Stars

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