If there’s one film this year that moves at a break-neck pace and completely trims all the fat out of what could have been an extremely exposition-heavy film, it’s Red Hill, an Australian revenge-western from acclaimed short-film director Patrick Hughes. Headlined by True Blood favorite Ryan Kwanten, it seamlessly combines the best elements of spaghetti and American westerns, as well as a dash of horror, to create a thriller on par with the other recent Australian-made break-outs, such as The Square, The Horseman, and Animal Kingdom.
After the stress of big city living causes his wife (Claire van der Boom) to have a miscarriage, officer Shane Cooper (Kwanten) transfers out to the rural town of Red Hill to raise his forthcoming child. Unfortunately for him, the town is begrudged by newly-escaped convict Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) and his first day on the job might not be as ordinary and humdrum as he expected. Arriving at the station after checking out a supposed panther attack, he finds a posse of townsfolk, headed up by the chief of police, Old Bill (Steve Bisley), defending their town against a stealthy – and quite gruesome – ambush.
Just as Cooper is thrust into a situation which he does not fully comprehend, the lack of up-front exposition gives the audience a chance to go along for the ride, which is the film’s greatest strength. Films as of late have struggled to maintain a balance of too much vs. too little, and if Red Hill proves anything, it’s that slowly piecing a puzzle together is a lot better than having someone do it for you. The fact that the initial explanation for Conway’s behavior doesn’t gel and that the town is harboring a dark secret shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone; it’s the way that it’s presented that proves to be a slow burn plot-wise, but the film certainly keeps up the momentum with its ably shot – and sometimes brutal – action sequences.
Although the entire supporting cast puts in good performances, Kwanten, who is extremely watchable as the dim-witted Jason Stackhouse on the HBO vampire series, really proves himself as an actor here, showcasing top-shelf range and acting chops throughout. The film is dialogue-lite during the first two acts, and Kwanten displays almost all of his confusion and horror about the situation through facial expressions and body language, which is something a less capable actor and poorly written script would have conveyed through swearing. Like many other elements of the film, his back story is kept to a minimum, giving Kwanten a chance to subtly bring some unspoken frustration and issues with his life prior to arriving in Red Hill. All of these elements add up to create a full-bodied transition between pacifist – he’s a police officer that doesn’t think it’s necessary to bring a gun to his first day on the job – and bad-ass that actually works.
Once the big reveal happens, the film loses a little steam, even if it’s still an effective thriller. It works better as a monster movie when the disfigured Conway is destroying the town that put him in the slammer, in almost the same way as Michael Myers runs through Haddenfield in the original Halloween, murdering people for no reason. The specter-like panther, which appears to be only a legend during the first act, eventually manifests itself, proving to be an aptly-placed parallel to Conway’s slasher-like invincibility and his under-the-radar entry into the town.
Red Hill uses John Ford characterization, applies a Leone-like setup to its action sequences, and uses a horrific approach for its villain. It’s almost the exact opposite of a lot of other recent films, in that the culmination of different ideas and sensibilities that normally don’t work well together can if they’re put into the hands of a director with a clear vision and a talented cast.