I have spent a lot of time in Australian country towns, usually staying in rural hotels with my extended family. These small towns are curious places. On a Sunday in the Wheat belt, nothing is open. The locals stay home. The main street is deserted. I don’t mean quiet – I am the only one there. The few historical buildings that make up the skeleton of the town huddle around the main street, their un-rendered brick backsides leading off to not much else. Apart from a Coca-Cola sticker on a corner shop window, an orange-topped phone booth, or a ‘For Sale’ sign outside a failed gallery or gourmet café, many of these towns don’t seem to sport any signs that the digital age, the 21st century has arrived. It has of course; rural citizens have Wiis and broadband and wireless EFTPOS, it’s all just hidden behind a Careema green linoleum bar top, or beneath the flap of a dri-za-bone.
Perhaps my favourite thing about country towns is that there is only one of everything. One pub, one post office, one health clinic, one deli, one restaurant, one tractor hire, one butchery, one police station, one school and (if you’re lucky) one public pool or recreation centre. All of these singular ablutions hug a long, single road, usually called High Street. The town personnel are also often in the singular: one GP, one baker, one publican, one cop, one MP and so on.
So, a country town is almost like a play set or a kit. Each set comes with one of everything, standard issue, and this is what makes Australian country towns the perfect arenas for a Western-style shootout film. There are limited characters and locations, and we can easily grasp the characters’ positions and watch them play out their strategies within this diorama-like micro-map, like we would watch a game of chess unfold. Red Hill represents the whole world in one tension-riddled street. Characters in hiding watch the stage in the centre of the main road as though waiting in the wings, and all major discoveries, risks and statements are made centre-stage, where they permeate the whole of Red Hill with dread.
Red Hill is an insular country town, full of civic pride and staunch resistance to change, but with little going for it culturally, socially or historically. Newly transferred from the city, Ryan Kwanten’s Shane Cooper and heavily pregnant wife Alice (Clare van der Boom) are looking to settle into a peaceful rural idyll, to bring up their soon-expected baby boy. In a town where everybody knows everybody and they all have dark secrets lying close to the surface, Cooper struggles to befriend anybody. Red Hill is played out over a single day and night - Cooper’s contracted first day on a Hellish beat.
The great enemy of the Red Hill police force is convict Jimmy Conway, newly escaped from a nearby high security prison after allegedly attempting to assassinate Red Hill police officers. Wearing an akubra, overcoat, crossed ammunition belts, wielding a sawn-off shotgun, and with Twoface-style scarring on his face, Conway is the very picture of dogged retribution. Whatever he is coming to do, it’s clear he won’t back down ‘til it’s over. Jimmy Conway is also conspicuously the only Aboriginal character in the film, which appears to be an illustration of some kind of latent intolerance and ignorance about Aboriginal culture in rural Australia. A sweeping gesture, perhaps, but one that certainly highlights some persistent pockets of out-dated attitudes that exist all over the country, in small towns and in big cities. This point exists only as a premise, however, for what is a rollicking Western-flavoured thriller, and a mysterious, twist-riddled revenge story.
Ryan Kwanten has certainly come a long way since Home And Away (an idiotic TV show) and the addictive True Blood (in which he plays an idiot). Whist the unimpulsive-young-copper-with-pregnant-wife role is a classic one, his performance is admirable, his character a level above his previous roles. Performances by Steve Bisley (the town sheriff) and Tommy Lewis (the vindictive Conway) outshine Kwanten’s, despite being written as impressionistically sinister roles.
As a fast-paced thriller Red Hill is immensely satisfying, and makes the best possible use of all of the components of small-town Australian culture. Writer-director Patrick Hughes, made this film entirely independent of funding, and has therefore produced a singularly Australian re-working of a film that, had it been made in Hollywood, would have been utterly common, full of one-liners and ridiculous explosions. In Australian, and less well-funded hands, this film reaches its maximum potential as an exercise in tension, and an illumination of the Australian country culture that we don’t know whether to embrace or to laugh off.