A young police officer from the city arrives in the small mining town of Red Hill. It’s his first day, he’s late, he’s lost his gun, and things are only going to get worse.
Red Hill is one of those quiet little gems of a movie that most people will have to go out of their way to find. Which is a damn shame as this is a finely crafted, taught, well executed movie that deserves a wider audience.
Perhaps one stumbling block it has to overcome is that fact that it’s an Australian movie. For some reason, especially in the USA, Australian movies struggle to find adequate distribution. Australian (and New Zealand) actors flourish in the states, but this success seems to elude Australian movies themselves as a rule. This is kind of ironic in Red Hill’s case, as this movie is a fine example of American movie iconography. Red Hill is a western down to its very bones. Indeed, if you took away the accents, and the occasional reference to aborigines, Red Hill could be mistaken for any small dusty American town. Some have described this as an Australian “take” on the western. The fact that it is Australian is irrelevant. This is a Western. Capital W. Everything from the settings, to the characters, story, plot, music and cinematography are all classic western motifs. Australia is perhaps the only other country in the world that lends itself, culturally speaking, to telling the classic western tale.
Constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) arrives in Red Hill ready to settle down into a quiet life of rural policing. His wife is the reason they are now living in this small town that is on its last legs. She is heavily pregnant, and after loosing the first baby, has been advised that living a calmer, more sedate life would help in having a healthy pregnancy. Cooper meets his fellow officers, the lazy but decent Sergeant Manning. The disdainful Sergeant Barlow and the boss, Old Bill, a gruff, no nonsense old school policemen, played by the fantastic character actor Steve Bisley (whom you may recognise as Max’s blonde haired partner from the original Mad Max) After these brief introductory scenes the real story begins as we learn that there has been an escape from a max security prison, and one time Red Hill resident, Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) has escaped. This sends the fear of god into the locals, and sets the law officers on edge. You see, it was Old Bill that put Jimmy in prison for murdering his own family some ten years earlier, and Jimmy is making his way back to Red Hill seeking revenge.
Jimmy is played in grim, determined silence (the character has only one brief but telling line of dialogue in the whole movie) by the awesome Tommy Lewis. With half his face burned away and the rage and hatred blazing in his eyes, Jimmy makes for a memorable and genuinely menacing antagonist. Dressed in a cowboy hat and long duster, he is a striking image that wouldn’t be out of place in a classic Leone revenge western
In fact, the story is one of the best things about Red Hill. Indeed, on the surface it is nothing new, and one could say it has a lot of similarities with classic westerns such as High Noon or Rio Bravo (a small group of lawmen awaiting the arrival of, or holding out against the villain) and is a classic siege type scenario. However, the interesting thing about Red Hill is that it is a revenge movie seen from the point of view of those on the receiving end of the wrath. It is refreshing to see things unfold from this aspect, especially as it is witnessed through Cooper’s eyes as the new boy in town; we have only the information he learns as things unfold. It’s an interesting ploy that, without drawing undue attention, works really well. As the events unfold, we learn that Red Hill has a dark secret that doesn’t want to stay hidden.
The lead actors are uniformly on top form. Ryan Kwanten (most recognisable as Jason Stackhouse in the supernatural soap opera True Blood) brings the perfect balance of fear, courage and humour as the young Cooper determined to do his job. Steve Bisley is magnificent as the gruff, sandblasted old timer Bill. And Tommy Lewis, as already stated, is a force of nature as both a menacing villain and an ultimately tragic figure. The supporting cast does well, with largely thankless roles that rely a little too much on cliché rather than character traits. But this is a small quibble really.
The stunning cinematography of Tim Hudson shows off the natural beauty of the Australian locations wonderfully. Patrick Hughes directing is assured and uncluttered. He really uses the open spaces well and pulls in nice and tight for the interiors to emphasize the feeling of being trapped. A lot of the action takes place at night, and the once bright sunny town of Red Hill becomes a place of shadows and fear thanks to Hughes’ confident pacing and clean, crisp editing.
All in all Red Hill is a cracking little film that shows what a confident director can do with a talented cast and an interesting approach to an oft told story. It’s also nice to see a film that isn’t based in America, using its own cultural references and idiosyncrasies whilst deftly being familiar and universal at the same time.