Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Patrick Hughes' primal thriller RED HILL rivets and moves us in equal measure

What a fine, smart, fast, intelligent -- and humane -- thriller is RED HILL, the new Australian movie from writer/director Patrick Hughes. At its core is a country’s history, telescoped down to a single event -- and the long-brewing aftermath of that event. Younger viewers, those who have come to movies too late to remember the 1970s and the resurgence of the Australian film industry during that decade, will probably accept Red Hill on its own initial-if-deceptive, simply-a-thriller terms. And that's fine -- because the movie certainly does provide a series of non-stop thrills, each one backed up by something primal and upsetting. Things are more than amiss here. Civilization is threatened.

After a sweet start, as a husband and wife awaken in their new home and hubby goes off to work (she's pregnant; he's a cop, transplanted from the city to a small-town outpost in the country), the film quickly takes off and never lets up its rapid-fire pace, even as it consistently keeps us on our toes by subver-ting expectations. This is B-movie-making of a very high order, the best of its kind since Wes Craven made Red Eye. Mr. Hughes (pictured, left) is a relative newcomer to the international film scene. He's made only three short films in over a decade, but Red Hill, his first full-length feature, should change his status fast.

Among the things Hughes handles best are clichés. He knows which to use, which to avoid and which to stand on their head for maximum impact and surprise, while making certain that his film never hops the rails of believability. Most succulently, when it does appear to defy credibility, wait a bit and, to your delight, you'll see that this is hardly the case.

Hughes also combines the thriller genre with a modern day western in which the threat comes from a source that appears as frightening as it is lethal. Primal "elements" are also present here, one of which is a major storm that's brewing. And, as with almost all good B movies, the running time is short: just 96 minutes.

Red Hill is an "aboriginal" movie in several ways. It deals with an Aborigine, played by Tommy Lewis (shown above), star of one of those seminal '70 Australian films, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith). Its themes -- from birth and death to vengeance and the animal nature of man -- while present and accounted for are not driven home with a hammer. Finally, there is the idea of the "imported" menace: the wild animal said to be killing the livestock (below) harks back to the importation of British criminals and the destruction of the Aborigines that soon followed. While none of this is "stated," all of it is present in the tale itself.

Though the film's cast is first-rate, other than its "star," Ryan Kwanten (shown at bottom and best known for True Blood), only Mr. Lewis may ring a bell with older "arthouse" audiences. Kwanten is very good, by the way: direct and real, as believable as a young cop and father-to-be as he is a dead-set hero when the occasion demands. Lewis remains a force of nature who finally and rightly commandeers the movie. Equally fine is Steve Bisley as Kwantan's no-nonsense new boss, who has a surprise or two up his sleeve, as well.

There's a lot of violence in Red Hill, but this is no gore-fest. Considering what might have transpired in the hands of certain other directors, the film is a model of containment and righteousness. Consider, for example, what Hughes does and does not do with the killer-on-the-loose/pregnant woman combination. Suspenseful as hell, the film shows no more blood-and-guts than necessary to make its point. Gorgeous to look at (technical credts are first-rate), this is a model movie in so many ways.
Jimmie Blacksmith chants again!

Red Hill, from Strand Releasing, opens Friday, November 5, in New York City at the AMC Empire 25 and the Clearview Cinema Chelsea.  Other venues should follow fast, once word-of-mouth takes off.

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