Starring: Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham, Emily Watson
Director: John Hillcoat
Following the brutal murder and rape at a homestead, Captain Stanley (Winstone) is determined to get Arthur Burns (Huston), the leader of the infamous Burns Gang. He manages to capture Charlie (Pearce) and Mike, two of Arthurs brothers, and makes a proposition: Charlie has to find his older brother Arthur and kill him, or his younger brother Mike will be hanged. While Charlie agrees and leaves, he runs into problems on the way, and doesn’t kill Arthur when he finds him. Meanwhile, the small town are out for revenge and want to see Mike punished for his and the rest of the gangs deeds, but Stanley fears repercussion on him and his wife (Watson) if this happens.
Essentially, this film is a Western, and one in the Sam Peckinpah style, that is, lots of blood and violence. This partly lends the film a sense of realism that more sentimental portraits of Australias history have ignored. We know stories of romanticised gangs like the Kelly’s and we know that Australian farmers battled the elements, but we don’t often see that punishments were brutal, and the cat-o-nine-tails scene here shows us this. But there is also a sense here that this film wants to be edgy and raw, violence as an attention seeking device, it feels like it’s moving away from traditional Australian film tropes and towards more American film style. It wants to steal a little from Reservoir Dogs perhaps, and leave behind Picnic At Hanging Rock. In this way, it appears updated and apealing to a wider audience, perhaps.
I don’t really have a problem with this, but what makes this film Australian are really just surface, cosmetic things. Swap an Aboriginal for a Native American and you have an old school Western. While Australian films of the New Wave explored Australian cultural archetypes and narratives, this film moves away from those. The land here is a very small player in the film. It doesn’t dictate anyones’s lives: you never hear the distinct sound of Australian birds which are part of the soundtrack to life there, no one mentions that the rain has or has not come, or that Charlie moving across the landscape would have to find shade and water frequently and probably only travel at night and in the morning. (Or wonder how Mrs Stanley manages to have enough water to have a rose garden in what is almost a desert) Here, the danger is other people, not the landscape.
And the people in this film are also interesting. Australian film often reflects a macho culture where mateship is more important than women. This film only has very few female characters, and all of them are the sexual objects of the male. I don’t think anyone in this film is particularly likeable. No one has a sense of honor or manners, which surprised me. I know that there is a sense that vulgarity is part of the Australian lexicon, but there is also a strong sense of people having a fair go and being helpful too. Perhaps the film is trying to say that this was not something that had developed in the 1880’s, but… I don’t think people were ever as one dimensional as they are in this film. Much like American films as well, the more English someone is, and the more outwardly tidy and well mannered they are, the more cruel and foolish they are. Take David Wenham’s Eden Fletcher for example. Classic English character in an American film. This actually doesn’t make this film a bad film at all, it’s just to point out that it’s different in this way to other Australian films. I have to say, I enjoyed all the performances a great deal.
In regards to race, I liked that there was a Chinese presence, since we don’t often see them in films of this era. Again, they were present in the US and Canada at this time as well, especially around the gold fields and where cheap labour was needed, so you could transpose this film to another landscape, but it was still a nice touch. Also, the Aboriginal characters are given more complex and diverse roles here, there are local tribes living their lives, as well as trackers who bridge the gap between the new and old worlds, and one of the gang members who is included in the word “family” by Arthur.
I found it interesting that Arthur talks about family a lot. He likes to say that his gang is family. While two of the members are actually his brothers, the others are clearly not. It lends him a sinister air because we know that he’s brutal and emotionless, that he attacks and kills people who live the the traditional family unit. It’s like he likes the sentimentality and belonging of the word, but because of his deranged brain, he can’t understand the words implications of safety and comfort. It’s interesting.
Like a lot of Westerns, the film has some long takes and wide shots of horses crossing stretches of dry ground, of men staring off into the sunset. It does have a slightly dream like quality to it, especially as it cuts between the two plot lines of Charlie heading out to Arthur’s camp, and Captain Stanley trying to control the brutal louts and villagers at home base. This is down to director John Hillcoat’s background in music videos and gives the film some montage moments. Hillcoat also directed The Road and Lawless, and you can see there’s a bit of a style and themes that run through these three films. Famously, musician Nick Cave wrote this film and also worked on the soundtrack, which initially uses old songs from the time period and then heads more into rock territory in that final third. I think the two clearly make an excellent team, and you can feel that Western meets rock and roll vibe in this film.
Brutal, long, lingering with bursts of violence, this film feels like it’s trying to break with the genre tropes of Australian films that were so fresh in the New Wave twenty something years before. It wants to be something else, something new and a bit commercial, a bit shocking. I think by doing this it ends up being quite a conventional film, and not particularly Australian, but it does challenge the notion of a kind of peaceful, pastoral past. And it is entertaining, which is really the whole point anyway.
See It If: you like Westerns with bite, like Sam Peckinpah films or more recent films like Bone Tomahawk.