Australia / 98 minutes / color / Arclight, Hughes House, Wildheart, Wolf Creek, McMahon, Screen Australia Dir & Scr: Patrick Hughes Pr: Patrick Hughes, Al Clark Cine: Tim Hudson Cast: Ryan Kwanten, Steve Bisley, Tom E. Lewis, Claire van der Boom, Christopher Davis, Kevin Harrington, Richard Sutherland, Cliff Ellen, John Brumpton, Ken Radley, Jim Daly, Dom Phelan, Eddie Baroo, Jada Alberts, Tim Hughes, Ken Connley, Richard Young.
Convicted murderer Dural “Jimmy” Conway (Lewis) escapes from the Western Bay Maximum Security Prison and, intent on revenge, immediately heads for Red Hill, the remote small town where he lived and was arrested. Starting his first day at the Red Hill PD is Constable Shane Cooper (Kwanten), transferred from the big city on doctor’s advice because wife Alice (van der Boom) lost their first child and is now heavily pregnant once more. As soon as news reaches the town of Jimmy’s escape, the Red Hill PD, headed by Old Bill Butler (Bisley), readies itself for a murderous siege.
Tom E. Lewis, as the vengeful Jimmy Conway, dominates the screen in all his scenes.
Soon enough Jimmy arrives and, wordless (except for the movie’s final seconds), impassive and implacable, his face a mass of burn scars, he starts taking out Red Hill’s menfolk one by one—being well equipped to do so with his renowned tracking skills, his brilliant marksmanship, his near-preternaturally attuned senses, and of course his pump-action shotgun (although later he deploys a spear and a boomerang to equally deadly effect). More than once, however, when Jimmy has Shane at his mercy he spares him.
By the time the truth of an old crime is related, the basics of it are already fairly clear to us. Years ago the government wanted to put a train line through Red Hill, which would have brought new wealth to the dying town. Jimmy, of Aboriginal extraction, discovered the engineering would destroy an ancient sacred site, and stopped the enterprise. Accordingly a posse of men, with Old Bill as ringleader, stormed Jimmy’s home, beat him, raped and murdered his pregnant wife Ellen (Alberts), tried to burn Jimmy alive and, when he survived, framed him for Ellen’s murder. His sole dialogue, spoken to Shane, whom Jimmy knows is likewise soon to be a father, is: “We were going to have a boy.”
Armed with a full confession from another member of the gang, the suicidally repentant rancher Gleason (Ellen), Shane is able to see matters through to some sort of setting-straight of the record.
It’s easy to view this as a member of that scant subgenre, the neonoir Western—others include NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)—with the obvious difference that this is set in the Australian outback rather than the American West. At first reading the plot is simple to the point of starkness, a tale of terrible revenge for a terrible crime; yet director/scripter Hughes—aided by Hudson’s wonderful cinematography and an astonishing performance from Lewis, whose silent presence dominates every scene he’s in—is able to able to give the movie at least the impression of having great depth rather than being just a Clint Eastwood-style Western shootemup.
And some of that depth isn’t entirely illusory. Shane first encounters Gleason when the old rancher phones in that one of his horses has been mutilated. He tells Shane he suspects a panther, a supposed descendant of a pair of nineteenth-century carnival escapees; the panther legend is ridiculed by most of the cast (panthers aren’t indigenous to Australia), but, like Jimmy, the big cat later spares Shane when it has the opportunity to kill him. At movie’s end, as this magnificent wild creature surveys the world from a remote aerie, the equation of the panther’s free spirit with Jimmy’s is patent.
The movie received a number of awards nominations in Australia; it deserves a wider audience.
On Amazon.com: Red Hill