Review by Jane Freebury
It’s one helluva first day at work for a young policeman who has moved to a quiet country town to improve his wife’s health during her pregnancy. His first call is to a property where a horse lies disembowelled, the farmer wittering about phantoms on the prowl.
The rookie policeman’s second task is to intercept an escaped prisoner that his new colleagues will meet with a mixture of dread and bloodlust the moment he arrives in town, as he surely will. Welcome to Red Hill, a boomtown gone bust where folk don’t mind if it stays that way, especially policeman, Old Bill, played by Steve Bisley in excellent form. No wine and food festivals here, it’s a rural backwater and proud of it.
Before very long at all it’s clear that Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) has wandered into a time-warp and will ‘wake in fright’. Richard Morecraft is reading the news on the ABC but it could be the 50 years ago, rather than 15. Shane is nothing but a ‘blow-in from the big smoke’ for this hard-bitten bunch, so he’s sent to intercept the escapee at the least likely point of entry, the gully of Skins Creek.
Of course, it’s where the escapee Dural ‘Jimmy’Conway shows up first. We have seen him many times before on screen, but most especially we remember Tom E. Lewis (aka Tommy Lewis) as Jimmie Blacksmith, the young Aboriginal in Fred Schepisi’s 1978 film who tried to do right until he could take it no longer and took to his oppressors with an axe. Red Hill writer/director Patrick Hughes has joked that his movie is aka ‘Jimmy Chants Again”.
It is, and broaching controversial territory again, with Lewis’s silent and methodical avenger as inexorable a force as Bardem’s character in No Country for Old Men. But here events are eventually explained.
Some difficult issues get a mention here – environmentalism, the city/country divide and the generational divide – though none of them get much of a workout. But hey, this is entertainment, and Red Hill proclaims its gothic western genre roots from the start.
If we don’t mind the clichés of the lone horseman riding into town and picking off the gunmen he can see through eyes in the back of his head, we do mind the symbolism. It’s over-determined and heavy-going, particularly the black panther on the loose.
With its soundtrack things get laboured too so the film can’t sustain tension, and the weak performances among the straw men in Old Bill’s posse detract. First-time feature director Patrick Hughes just tries to push too many buttons, too hard, at once.
In a capsule: A gothic western with an implacable avenger set in a sleepy and possibly sinister township in rural Australia. Steve Bisley in fine form as a grizzled copper in this ‘wake in fright’ and though all’s good in the technical areas, it overplays its hand.