A completely badass Australian western, Red Hill further demonstrates that Aussie filmmakers are capable of producing top-tier films on low budgets that put large Hollywood productions to shame. It’s on the same level as other acclaimed Aussie gems like The Proposition and Animal Kingdom, with writer-director Patrick Hughes fashioning a hard-noised, suspenseful old-fashioned thriller that pays loving tribute to such old masters as John Carpenter and Sergio Leone, while also developing a unique identity of its own by using rural Australia instead of the vast deserts of the United States. Red Hill never reinvents the wheel, but Hughes trots out the clichés with a sure filmmaking hand, confidently pulling together a gritty, proficient B-movie that’s viciously violent and consistently entertaining.
A city boy, young police constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) relocates to the tiny rural town of Red Hill in order to reduce the stress of his wife’s pregnancy. Cooper optimistically approaches his first day on the job, but the local sheriff, Old Bill (Steve Bisley), has no patience for the young man, giving him a tough time. Word soon spreads to the precinct that disfigured Aboriginal outlaw Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) has broken out of prison, and his first port of call will no doubt be Red Hill to visit the police officers who put him behind bars. Pulling in armed civilians and his entire police force, Old Bill scrambles to protect the town from the bloodthirsty killer headed their way. Cooper soon comes face to face with the vengeful brute, who spares his life but is not so kind to the other police officers, killing them off one-by-one.
Red Hill plays out as a modern-day western, with Hughes situating narrative tropes associated with the genre into a rural Australian setting. It’s a simple idea, but it has plenty of mileage, particularly because Hughes takes the story in unexpected directions. As a matter off fact, the film looks to be losing steam at around the 60-minute mark, only for Hughes to drop a few revelations, paving the way for a stunning ending. Moreover, Red Hill is an emotionally-charged story, displaying interest in character development that doesn’t merely come off as perfunctory. Cooper’s wife seems like a shallow device to give him depth, but it actually feeds into the story in a profound way. Although none of the characters here are original, Hughes imbues them with complexity; even the ostensible villains of the tale are not as cut-and-dried as they seem. Red Hill does stumble at times (there’s a subplot involving a panther that gets a little goofy, some of the firearm accuracy is skewiff, and at times people hesitate to shoot for no reason other than convenience), but Hughes keeps the picture afloat nevertheless, getting a lot more right than wrong.
Making his feature film debut after a string of shorts, Hughes assembles Red Hill with care and patience, telling this ostensibly simple story with plenty of thought towards mood and pacing. There is an overriding sense of tension to the enterprise that’s suffocating at times, with a number of gut-wrenchingly intense scenes that kept this reviewer squirming on the edge of his seat. This is a testament not just to Hughes’ abilities as a craftsman (he edited the film as well), but also to his skills as a storyteller; it’s possible to become invested in this atmospheric tale, and feel attached to the characters, breathlessly watching to see what will happen to them next. Tim Hudson’s lavish cinematography is impressive as well, making great use of the sprawling Australian landscapes and the small-town locales that imbue Red Hill with flavour and atmosphere. And while Hughes gives the flick a serious, gritty tone, there is also a sense of playfulness underneath, preventing the film from devolving into a dour drag. The tiny budget is evident at times, but Red Hill is a stylish movie for the most part, benefitting from a strong sense of vision.
Ryan Kwanten is not the first name that one thinks of to play an action hero, as his work in television shows like True Blood and Home & Away portray him as more of a pretty boy than anything substantive. But Kwanten is perfect as Shane Cooper, showing genuine range as he creates a protagonist who’s instantly worthy of our empathy. He’s smart, sensitive, mature and nuanced, and never feels the need to take off his shirt. Moreover, Kwanten effortlessly sells Cooper’s transition from clueless to heroic. Equally excellent is support work from Mad Max actor Steve Bisley, who makes for an entirely believable old police chief with more to his character than what meets the eye. Most of the other roles are pretty one-note, but Tommy Lewis deserves major plaudits for his mute portrayal of Jimmy Conway.
To be sure, Red Hill packs a fair amount of clichés, but this is a rare type of film which makes the clichés work, resulting in a surprisingly rich, emotional experience that deserves a wide audience. Hughes is definitely a talent to watch, as the film benefits from its smart pacing and an array of action sequences that are more viscerally exciting than the majority of Hollywood’s output.