Red Hill, stylistically unlike anything from Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios, plays the revenge theme in reverse, its narrative’s retribution sought by the nominal antagonist of the piece. It also plays its hand so unevenly that it’s a wonder the film was financed without at least one backer asking for another rewrite.
Written, directed and edited by first-time feature filmmaker Patrick Hughes, Red Hill sees young cop Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) join the local force in the sleepy little Victorian town of Red Hill after the stress of the big city led his wife (Clare van der Boom) to miscarry their last baby. After twenty-or-so minutes of being treated as the miserable outsider by his new work mates, including Steve Bisley and Kevin Harrington, he stumbles into the middle of a full scale panic. It seems “Jimmy” Conway (Tommy Lewis), a part-Aboriginal convicted murderer, has broken out of prison and is on his way to Red Hill with a killing spree in mind. However, the townsfolk seem to be keeping one hell of a secret, and it’s up to Cooper to find out why Conway has chosen Red Hill as his target.
After opening with an extremely creepy sequence that focusses on nothing more than the approach of a storm and a worried-looking horse, Red Hill makes its first genre jump. What looked like it was interested in establishing itself as a thriller-cum-horror film quickly transforms into a plodding excursion in the life of an outsider in a small town for the rest of its first act. Characters are painstakingly established through some extremely expository dialogue, and very little of any substance occurs. The one exception to this superfluity of content sees Cooper visit farmer Slim (Christopher Davis), whose horse – presumably the one seen at the film’s outset – has been horribly mutilated. Despite a quite confronting practical effect to depict the carcass and Slim’s attempt to blame a panther for the killing, unease is the last thing Hughes is able to construct in this scene. His editing is sluggish, as it is elsewhere in the film (was he struggling to hit the film’s brief 95-minute duration?), and the performance he elicits from Davis works contrary to the desired affective response.
The plodding opening half-hour over, Red Hill suddenly jacks up its energy levels as the town prepares itself for Conway’s imminent arrival. Cooper, naturally, is the first to confront him, an encounter that leads to the young officer apparently severely injuring himself – though you wouldn’t know it if his stamina through the next 18 hours of his life is anything to go by. Adrenaline can explain a lot of things, but running around for hours on end, climbing into ventilation ducts, being transported in car boots and ultimately carrying a grown man up a hill are not among the activities I’d have imagined someone with a gaping wound in their side to be capable of.
Anyway, this incident is enough to allow Conway passage into town, and it conveniently keeps Cooper out of the way while Conway viciously disposes of a number of cops and civilians. In fact, pretty well anyone who isn’t Cooper, it seems. I won’t give away his reasons, though I’m sure I wasn’t the only audience member to guess them before they were laboriously explained courtesy of a heavily narrated flashback sequence that essentially told exactly what it was showing. But I don’t think it’s coincidence that Lewis, who played the titular role in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, was cast as Conway. Red Hill is, at its most fundamental level, Blacksmith with guns. Lots of guns.
Very loud guns, as it happens. Conway’s first attack, on the police station, sells the film’s Point Blank aspirations very effectively. Blood flows in abundance, and every gunshot is pushed to eleven in the sound mix. It has been said of Australian cinema that one of its great strengths is the level of detail that goes into its sound design. In this sequence, that strength is translated admirably. As Conway continues from execution of paper-thin character to execution of paper-thin character, even the spine-wrenching power of each blast is diminished by the lack of empathy we feel for what are ultimately targets in a massacre. We’ve never really known the majority of these characters and have come to barely tolerate the walking clichés in more prominent roles, so why are we expected to give a stuff every time one of them is killed by Conway? By contrast, Lewis, expressing without a single line of dialogue the pathos that Fred Schepisi must have seen him capable of conveying over three decades ago, gradually transforms from a killing machine into someone we could care about if only he weren’t busy trying to break every mass murder record in the book. It’s the one character arc that comes off in the film, largely because it seems to be the one character arc Hughes is even vaguely interested in developing. Admittedly, a standard revenge flick can hang on one character arc and survive, but as Conway is depicted for much of the film’s running time as Terminator-like, his is not necessarily the arc this film should be hanging on.
Overall, despite very strong evidence that Hughes has some idea of the requirements of making an effective genre film, he’s not quite there yet. The token back story he creates for Cooper seems to exist largely as an excuse to bring an outsider into the town, a mechanism required of the plot. That it adds a little meat to the overlong first act must have seemed to Hughes an added bonus. As characterisation, it’s fairly pat, and it opens up inconsistencies and unfulfilled expectations. His pregnant wife, Alice Cooper (with a name like that, it’s lucky she never gets a full name check in the film) previously miscarried at six months because of various stress factors. Yet she looks to be about eight months along this time, well past the previous danger zone, and is belatedly being led to a purportedly stress-free existence by… going through the stress of relocating a month before coming to term. Luckily, it’s the perfect predicament for literally bringing the threat of disaster home for Cooper, with madman Conway riding in to town. But somewhere along the line, Hughes has got his sums wrong. He seems to think that Wife Who Could Miscarry If Distressed + Approaching Homicidal Maniac = Keep Her Totally Safe For The Whole Movie. Makes you wonder why Hughes bothers to give Cooper a wife, except to increase by 50% the number of women who appear in this testosterone-driven film.
Elsewhere, Hughes fails to save his thin script when he directs his actors to perform contrary to the visual style he develops. All signs suggest he’s seen enough action films to know how they’re supposed to play out, but that he couldn’t direct an actor to save his life. Lewis brings qualities to Conway that he’s exhibited in other roles, Kwanten performs well but is probably relishing being given a starring role in an atypically populist Australian feature (even he can’t have failed to notice Cooper’s by-the-numbers characterisation), while Bisley and Harrington recycle their way through their parts. The rest of the cast commit themselves adequately, but few seem to understand what kind of a film they’re in. Regrettably, Hughes goes for the triple whammy by overindulging himself in post-production. As the sole responsible party for all three phases of the ‘writing’ of a film – script, directing and editing – he’s ignored a thin script by directing for style over substance and seems to be so in love with his material that he’s sacrificed pace at every turn. An editor less married to the project could have taken what appears on screen and mercilessly sliced it open, extracting every last ounce of fatty tissue until what remained was an empty but aesthetically satisfying action thriller. Instead, Hughes has retained every flaw that existed in his script and was subsequently accentuated by his directing.
Ultimately, the film’s greatest shortcoming is that it isn’t worse. There is much in Red Hill that suggests great promise from Hughes if he matures as a filmmaker. In the meantime, he could do worse than take greater cues from the likes of his Astor partner, Machete, the work of relative novices guided by a master craftsman of the genre.