The Australian high-country setting of Patrick Hughes’s blood-soaked western Red Hill, brimming with jagged edged rock faces and menacing mountainsides, evokes the genre universe of director Anthony Mann. Specifically, Red Hill shows how the brutal deeds of Aborigine avenger Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) intrinsically connect with the shifting landscape once prized by his ancestors. The constricting location not only physically chokes off the titular town from outside help, but also provides an understated sense that primal forces are uprooting the human foundation of community built on equal parts greed and corruption.
The film begins with a boom that seems to spring naturally from the quiet country setting. A group of horses feed calmly in an open meadow only to get frightened by this horrific sound resonating from the foggy hillside. Foreshadowing aside, this aesthetic flourish opens the film with a tonally evocative sound design that continues throughout the gory duration. Hughes then cuts into town, where police constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) gets ready for his first day on the job. Displaced from a big-city law enforcement post because of his pregnant wife Alice’s (Claire van der Boom) need for clean country air, Cooper also seeks to forget memories of a recent shooting gone wrong. Of course, the bad omens start immediately: Upon kissing his wife goodbye, Cooper realizes he can’t find his gun because it’s still packed away in moving boxes. But why would he need a weapon in such a quiet, peaceful town?
As Cooper strolls down the main drag toward the small police station weaponless and clueless, Hughes surrounds him with empty streets, driverless big rig trucks, and boarded up shops. Cooper soon finds out Red Hill is a ghost town in more ways than one. The local sheriff’s office is littered with familiar characters, such as the harmless dispatch officer, the angry deputy, and the badass chief named Old Bill (a bearded grizzly played by Steve Bisley), but everyday citizens are few and far between. Right in line with countless other cop movies, Cooper experiences some standard initiation duties and verbal hazing by the locals. But when convicted murderer and expert tracker Conway escapes from a nearby maximum security prison, Old Bill and his gun hands immediately shut down the town, fearing the killer will return for some sort of retribution. Cooper remains in the background, willingly following orders even when he becomes suspect of all the extended fuss. When Conway finally appears, Cooper goes from the frying pan into the fire, and Red Hill suddenly becomes a vicious slasher film with a damning political subtext.
The film shows the disfigured and wordless Conway as almost superhuman, a calculated boogeyman who kills only after allowing each victim to revel in the certainty of their fate. In one scene, Conway shotguns one of the deputies, only to sit down and eat his freshly sliced piece of cake before finishing the job. This stuff is personal, and Conway’s violence toward the white officers is prolonged and unflinching. His supernatural rage seems to be aided by Mother Nature, as lighting strikes, torrential rainfall, and distractingly bright fires play a role in sustaining Conway’s massacre. Old Bill’s shifty actions, willingness to sacrifice his own men, and urgency toward Conway’s fate call into question notions of good and evil. In turn, the physical audacity and precision of Conway’s actions begin to transition the narrative into something far more complex, instilling doubt concerning these classic western roles of hero and villain.
Cooper’s outsider status enables him to survive long enough to investigate the religious and ideological motives behind Conway’s assault on the men of Red Hill, and he uncovers a suffocating past trauma that indicts Anglo expansion and greed. When Conway raids a local “Information Center” and steals Aboriginal weaponry from a blatantly crass recreation of his native past, it’s clear he has an axe to grind with not just individual characters, but the racist ideology his victims represent. The final standoff is short and sweet, a sharp reminder that western themes of honor and sacrifice can come in many ambiguous forms.
In a strange and elusive twist of symbolism, the townsfolk of Red Hill often mention the legend of a panther roaming the hills, a foreign predator forced into the local wilderness by a traveling circus. Even during a particularly disturbing scene when the beast literally rips into a character, its representation as a metaphor for extreme adaptation remains poignant, becoming a visual window into Conway’s haunted righteousness. If Cooper represents the audience’s point of view, then like him, all we can do is sit back and watch western justice get served, and revel in the anti-imperialistic carnage splattered all over the façade of a small town painted red.