Film reviews David Stratton and Stephen Romei review the latest releases
Strangerland (MA15+) National release Slow West (M) National release
The Australian Outback has been depicted regularly in films as a source of menace, and not only in serial killer movies such as Wolf Creek. Time and again filmmakers have suggested that, for those Australians who live around the coastline, there’s something to be feared about the mysterious interior. Wake in Fright, Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, BeDevil, Long Weekend, Razorback, Mystery Road: these are just some of the feature films that have explored a strange and — for the outsider — sometimes scary landscape, far from the cities.
The latest film to fall into this category is the aptly titled Strangerland, which is set in the fictitious town of Nathgary (population 1848), a community located close to spectacular desert landscapes of rocky red hills and canyons — a landscape photographed around Broken Hill, though the scenes set in Nathgary itself were filmed in the NSW western town of Canowindra, which is nowhere near the Outback.
Strangerland is, not surprisingly, about strangers in town. The Parker family — Catherine (played by Nicole Kidman), Matthew (Joseph Fiennes) and their two children, teenaged Lily (Maddison Brown) and younger Tommy (Nicholas Hamilton) — is a relatively new arrival. Matthew is a pharmacist and it seems that he and Catherine decided to move to this relatively isolated place because of the behaviour of Lily in the previous (unnamed) town in which they lived; Lily, we learn, had become sexually involved with one of her teachers.
None of the Parkers is happy in Nathgary. Matthew, though kept busy at work, is edgy while Catherine constantly complains about the town she says she hates. Lily is bored and relieves her boredom by hanging out, in the scantiest of clothing, with the kids who inhabit the town’s skate park, while her younger brother — ordered not to let his sister out of his sight by his father — complains about this “shithole of a town”. He blames Lily for everything (“It’s all your fault we’re here”), but it’s hinted that Lily’s behaviour isn’t the only reason for the family’s exile.
Matthew reminds his wife that their daughter is “almost as out of control as you were”, to which Catherine reminds him that, after all, he married her. The early scenes of the film, scripted by Michael Kinirons and Fiona Seres and directed by first-time feature director Kim Farrant, are strong in depicting the place and its people and establishing an unsettling mood that suggests from the first moment that something bad is going to happen. When it does, though, it’s unexpected: one night, with an all-enveloping dust storm imminent, Lily and Tommy walk out of the house and disappear. Matthew watches them go but does nothing to stop them. Why?
This is one of many unanswered questions in the film, though it’s not entirely accurate to say the questions aren’t addressed in one form or another. I was reminded of the Michelangelo Antonioni masterpiece L’avventura (1960) in which, after establishing the characters in the first half of the film, the director focuses on a search for a character who has gone missing in the second half. I’m not suggesting Strangerland is on the same level as L’avventura but it is a strangely compelling and intriguing work in which the location — handsomely photographed by PJ Dillon — plays a crucial role.
For her debut feature, Farrant has been fortunate to work with a splendid cast. Kidman, who last played an Australian in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia five years ago, brings depth to the troubled character of Catherine, reminding us that she frequently has chosen challenging and offbeat roles during her interesting career. Hugo Weaving, as the local cop in charge of investigating the disappearances, is in excellent form, as is British actor Fiennes as the troubled Matthew.
Strangerland may possibly be too mysterious to be a major success, but this immaculately made movie goes a long way towards reminding us why a vibrant local film industry is so essential for the nation as a whole. Its intelligently drawn characters, with all their aspirations and all their failings, are a part of this Australian landscape, though in many ways they have a recognisable universality. Like the character played by Gary Bond in Wake in Fright, they’re unsettled by the extreme conditions they find in this small outback community, where danger lurks just beyond the town limits. An even more extreme example of a film that fakes its location setting is Slow West, a BritishNew Zealand co-production set in the American west but filmed almost entirely in New Zealand. The title in this case is misleading and probably off-putting; there’s nothing slow about the pace of the film. Scottish writer-director John Maclean — a former musician — wastes no time establishing the character of Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a teenager who has journeyed from his home in Scotland in search of Rose, his sweetheart, from whom he was separated in tragic circumstances (which will be revealed in flashback). Jay is a babe in the woods, a naive innocent ill-equipped for his mission as he travels alone through the dangerous landscape of mid-19th century Colorado; alone, that is, until he encounters Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a lone gunman who offers to act as the boy’s guide and protector for a price. What Jay doesn’t realise is that Selleck has another agenda, but, in the meantime there’s plenty of danger lurking from hostile Native Americans and a gang of cutthroats led by Payne, a role in which Ben Mendelsohn revels in another of his gallery of likable villains.
You easily could be fooled into thinking the New Zealand landscapes through which these characters travel really are Colorado, and after a while it doesn’t really matter, so gripping is this relatively simple story and the way in which Maclean tells it. Robbie Ryan’s camerawork is a major contribution to the film’s success, but what elevates Slow West from the average western (not that, sadly, we see too many of them these days) are the ironic and unexpected twists and turns to what is really a classic formula.
The drama builds to an almost unbearably tense climax, set in a remote cabin in the middle of a cornfield. Here, Maclean demonstrates that he’s a fine action director, able to choreograph scenes of gunplay as well as the best of them.
Smit-McPhee, the former child actor who came to prominence in the Australian feature Romulus, My Father (2007), is impressive as the stubborn and resourceful protagonist whose determination to locate and to marry his sweetheart is one of the few noble motivations to be found in this untrustworthy environment.
He makes a good foil for Fassbender, whose iconic gunfighter is a worthy descendant of actors such as John Wayne or James Stewart who played similar roles in another era.
Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee in Slow West, main picture; Joseph Fiennes and Nicole Kidman in Strangerland, below