see it

Just one week after Machete sliced open the diaries of Australian cult cinema appreciators a locally made ball-breaker with striking similarities arrived: writer/director Patrick Hughes’ ferocious neo-western Red Hill.

With a clop of hooves and a few thousand rounds of ammunition Hughes charters a violent path straight into the pool room of the seldom visited, inherently political genre of the indigenous Australian revenge drama, best known as the categorical home of Fred Schepisi’s 1978 classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

Like Machete, Red Hill captures a non-Caucasian gut-busting anti-hero who unleashes a biblical-esque plague of vengeance onto those who crossed him.

The story is told from the perspective of Shane (Ryan Kwanten), a straight-laced take home to mumma cop who arrives in a town full of bent ones. He and his pregnant wife left the city for the quiet, rustic appeal of the country. But the sights he’s about to see…they don’t put ‘em on the brochure.

Old Bill (a perfectly cast Steve Bisley) is the take-no-prisoners ten gallon sheriff of Red Hill whose men are more than a shade nervous when news arrives that convicted murderer Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis) has escaped from a nearby maximum security prison and will soon be heading back to his old hood, seeking revenge.

The town is locked down but Jimmy finds a way inside and meets and greets his enemies the only way he knows how – which is to say, not with a handshake. When the second act roars into full gear, you’d be excused for thinking this was No Country for White Men.

Jimmy is a powerful and brooding figure. With half of his face resembling melted plastic – it was burnt off during a fire – he’s had his identity literally and metaphorically warped by the white man. Jimmy isn’t just a character; he represents indigenous Australians as a collective, though to what extent and where exactly that analogy goes is up to the viewer to determine.

Hughes proves he can carry an action scene and then some. In fact he proves it again and again, with slickly edited, patiently paced “remember to breathe” slabs of stand-off intensity occupying a big chunk of the running time.

Dmitri Golovko’s darkly triumphant score takes cues from Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone, cranked to mega high voltage, dancing that line between hells bells bombast and near overwhelming oomph.

Red Hill delivers beautifully stylised hard boiled action, no doubt ’bout it, but Hughes underpins it with a spiritual and enigmatic core.

At around the time Jimmy arrives to collect his dues a black panther begins to lurk around the peripheries of Red Hill, occasionally strolling into town and into the frame. Stay after the movie “ends,” because the final glimpse of the panther is sandwiched between sets of closing credits.

The symbology of this mysterious black beast gives the film an almost otherworldly mysticism, representing an omnipotent dark justice that watches over the land.

And the idea of justice is at the heart of Red Hill. The subtext bleeds “you cannot run away from the sins of the past.”

Bursting onto the Australian film scene with an almighty roar, Patrick Hughes has delivered a big message to the local industry. His message is a spin on an old line associated with a genre he knows well: “this town is big enough for the two of us.”

Red Hill’s Australian theatrical release date: November 25, 2010

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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