The creators of the brutal, genre-mashing Australian thriller Red Hill have good timing. Ozploitation has been hip lately. Critics and audiences are reassessing the cycle of low-budget, often violent Aussie genre pictures that saw their heyday in the 1970s (as glorified in the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood). Meanwhile a new breed of Ausie cult film has been thriving on the festival circuit and in video outlets. SFF 2010 features a few including The Loved Ones and Caught Inside. And the target clientele should be well pleased by this entry.

But Red Hill is no mere cash-in; writer-director Patrick Hughes comes out guns blazing in his debut, aiming high, going for a new kind of Australian cult film. Part Western, part horror, paying canny tribute to genre classics with lots of style and confidence, Red Hill is also ambitious enough to engage in Australian mythmaking.

Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) plays Shane, a young cop from the city who transfers with his pregnant wife to the town of Red Hill (pop. 120) in the high country of Victoria — a place where people actually get around on horseback. He quickly finds more than he bargained for amongst the suspicious locals and working under the hard-bitten, spiteful sheriff (Steve Bisley). Then all hell breaks loose when an apparently psychopathic escaped convict (Tommy Lewis) — a local Aboriginal cowboy put away for murdering his wife years ago — hits the town gunning for retribution.

The expository stuff is not the strength of this film — in fact, a few moments early in Red Hill resemble any other thriller found on late-night cable with choppy story editing and sometimes unsure acting. But the film hits its stride when the convict Jimmy arrives on the scene and starts shooting the place up. Hughes has clearly learned the elements of violent action mise-en-scène from masters like Walter Hill, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Rodriguez, with a big helping of horror à la John Carpenter. As the action escalates, each well-executed sequence employs gritty suspense and quiet restraint before its bloody payoff. And it’s always a pleasure when a genre piece nods at more upmarket fare; in this case, Hughes treats us to a knowing pastiche of No Country For Old Men. For fan-types this film will be a lot of fun to watch.

But there’s also a surprisingly powerful emotional element that deepens as the film goes on. Shane’s impending fatherhood and his questionable courage under fire resonate as the stakes increase; and as we find out more about the town’s dark past it becomes a key to the violence. The legendary quality is augmented by the nicely-shot rugged exteriors — big open spaces isolating the characters from civilization, from the present, and from each other.

Red Hill has plenty of awkward moments, but it comes together well before it reaches its wrenching climax. Hughes has crafted a grim tale that’s uniquely Aussie but should have broad appeal in any hemisphere. This is quality cult fare with welcome pretensions; and if Hughes can build from here he’ll be mentioned in the company of his influences one day.

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