Wolf Creek / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
Fair warning: The following review is full of spoilers and lacking in wit. The first because there’s no way to talk about the substance of Wolf Creek without discussing where it takes the audience; the second because the film is such a dire subject that I have neither the ability nor the desire to be clever about it.
Wolf Creek is one of those movies that people will either love or hate but, if you love it, for God’s sake keep it to yourself. It was written, directed, and produced by Greg McLean, an enterprising young Australian whose only previous screen credit is the short ICQ but who’s been working in theater and television for over a decade. McLean has some skill, and we’ll probably be hearing more from him in coming years, though I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. The film is a road-trip horror movie about unwary city folk confronted with a backwoods killer, in the vein of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Wrong Turn; the first noticeable difference is that Wolf Creek is set in the Australian Outback, so the killer bears a general resemblance to Crocodile Dundee. The second is that it’s so inhumanly brutal that even those films seem sane and compassionate in comparison.
McLean’s skill shows in the deft, economical way he sets up the situation: In a long pre-title sequence, he introduces the three central characters — two English girls: Liz (Cassandra Magrath), the skinny, sensible one with sharp features and slight underbite; Kristy (Kestie Morassi), the busty, sensual one who looks a bit like Christina Applegate and a bit like Jennifer Aniston, though without their Hollywood polish; and their Aussie traveling companion, Ben (Nathan Phillips), scruffy and affable but a city boy from Sydney, unprepared for the perils of the Outback. The actors are attractive without being movie-star glamorous, their performances have a natural quality that’s quite appealing, and the writing is smarter and the story more plausible than many of its kind, though that’s not saying much. McLean shot the film in a casual manner, using a handheld digital-video camera, and he’s good at getting scenes that seem spontaneous, caught on the fly, so that we’re pulled into the characters’ world and accept it as reality. We get to know them gradually, through observation rather than exposition, and we come to like them. There’s a spark of romance between Liz and Ben, which Kristy encourages, and, though it doesn’t seem like much can come of it — she’s really too smart for him — it’s the sort of playful, temporary connection that forms naturally between people on a trip.
These three travelers are headed from Broome, a popular beach town on Australia’s western coast, to a giant meteorite crater at the eponymous national park, a distance of around 350 miles through the desolate Outback. (Wolfe Creek — with an “e” that McLean dropped — is a real place in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.) Along the way, there are dark intimations of things to come. Ben spooks the girls with campfire tales of alien activity, and there’s an unpleasant scene when they stop for gas at the last outpost of civilization before the park: A filthy group of bushmen taunt Ben, asking if the girls would be interested in “a bit of a gang-bang.” Ben wants to be chivalrous, but he’s outnumbered and outmuscled, and he slinks away with his tail between his legs, the city boy put in his place.
They reach the crater, have a pleasant ramble and a rest, and then, as sunset approaches, head back to the car, where they find the engine dead and their watches stopped. Is there some kind of dangerous magnetic force coming from the crater? Stuck deep in the middle of nowhere, with no one around and no means of contacting help, they huddle inside and wait for morning. But after a few hours, a savior arrives in the form of Mick (John Jarratt), a vulgar but good-humored bushman who offers to tow their car back to his place and repair the engine. They’re wary but accept the offer, no other options being available, and he tows them some considerable distance into the dark, unfamiliar Outback. They reach an abandoned mining town, which Mick apparently uses as a base of operation, and have a bit of campfire talk before settling in for the night while Mick goes to work on their engine. Mick, of course, turns out not to be innocently helpful, and they each awaken bound and gagged.
Much of the film is effectively scary: The Outback at night, lacking any artificial illumination, is eerily black, flat, and open, like the dark side of the moon, and, having come to like each of the travelers, we’re immediately anxious about their predicament. Unlike the usual serial-killer movie, Wolf Creek creates a situation without disposable stock characters we won’t miss, though I probably could have got by without Kristy and maybe even Ben. It’s Liz whose personality is the most defined, and it’s she who bears all the markings of the horror-film survivor — and this is where McLean breaks faith with the audience: We know from a thousand slasher movies that the smart, nice girl is supposed to survive, and Liz is clever and resourceful — when she awakens tied up in a shed, we know she’ll find a way to break her bonds and escape. Sure enough she does, but all her brains and courage aren’t enough here — after several tense encounters and last-minute escapes, just when she seems about to really get free, Liz is horribly maimed and paralyzed, soon to be killed. There’s an audacity in McLean’s approach, and part of me wants to praise him for being inventive and ignoring convention, but what he substitutes — pornographic brutality — is hardly more satisfying.
The film works on the audience in a way that’s similar to The Blair Witch Project; though some of the actors are well-known in Australia, they’re new to most American eyes, and their naturalness makes it easy to buy them as their characters. The one face that may be familiar to some Americans is Jarratt, whose 30-year career includes roles in classic Australian films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Jarratt is an accomplished actor, distinctively Australian, and his Mick is one of the most horrifying killers to inhabit the screen; he has none of charm of a Hannibal Lecter — a character so refined and literary he could almost be an Agatha Christie villain — and he’s not campy fun like a Jason Voorhees — a cartoon monster dispatching cartoon victims. Mick is all animal cunning and depraved, soulless glee in killing. Though there are a number of comic scenes between the three vacationers early on, after a certain point the film’s only humor is Mick’s perverse taunting, and his maniac delight is an abomination, an insult and a cruelty to the audience as well as the victims. As he goes about the business of dispatching them, the killer becomes the protagonist, but not in a tortured Norman Bates way, so that he elicits sympathy, or a playful Freddy Krueger way. Mick takes over the film because he’s wily and dangerous enough to kill pretty much everybody else, leaving us with no one else to watch and the stomach-turning proposition of transferring our identification to him. No thanks.
With its believable performances, grubby locations, and cinema verite-style camerawork, Wolf Creek is as close to a genuine snuff film as I ever hope to get. No doubt there are horror fans who have become so desensitized to the violence and bloodshed in a more traditional gorefest that they’ll get a real kick out of its gloating nihilism — it was lauded on the cover of Fangoria magazine as the year’s scariest film — but I found this movie thoroughly unpleasant; it is a dismal experience even now to consider it and write about it. And I’m not some fussy little watchdog for good taste; I love horror movies, and the inclusion of blood or violence doesn’t bother me when the movie either has some kind of moral structure or is a silly cartoon in which those elements can be discounted. The blood here doesn’t look like ketchup and the deaths of Liz and Kristy are not something I can laugh off. This is, I suppose, a backhanded compliment to McLean — his movie got to me in ways that not many movies have, in ways I’d prefer it hadn’t, but I don’t know what his purpose could be, unless he really is a moralist who wants to punish his audience for seeking the harmless kick of a slasher movie, to rub our noses in the real horror of death and dismemberment that might otherwise seem like innocent amusement. Somehow I doubt that.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.