Movie Review: KILLING GROUND (2017)

KILLING GROUND – a new Aussie thriller from first-time feature director Daniel Power – is funded and supported by Screen Australia, the government body responsible for disseminating money to filmmakers and growing the country’s entertainment industry. I can’t help but imagine there’s a perennial rivalry between Screen Australia and Australia’s Department of Tourism. Both vying for taxpayer’s dollars, one is tasked with attracting foreigners to this beautiful country; the other seemingly hell-bent on scaring the absolute shit out of them, ensuring they never set foot here.

From Peter Weir’s haunting PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK to Baz Luhrmann’s embarrassing financial disaster AUSTRALIA, our national cinema has never done a great job of attracting tourists. No matter how majestic our land looks on screen, our movies endorse that ever-pervasive belief that everything here is either deadly or determined to make you disappear. KILLING GROUND is no exception.

The movie begins with young couple Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer) driving to the Gungilee reserve – a place where English settlers massacred an Aboriginal tribe – which is now a camping ground open to the public. There they find an abandoned tent, signs of a struggle, and no trace of the owners. Soon, a pair of murderous wild pig hunters arrive on the scene, and what was meant to be a relaxing vacation quickly becomes a terrifying fight for survival.

If you’ve ever gone on a road trip through less populated parts of Australia, you know just how isolated it can make you feel. KILLING GROUND does a great job of playing on that feeling. There’s no cell phone service, no one around to help. It’s just the protagonists, the bush, and the psychopaths. However, this certainly isn’t the first film to employ such a setup. Comparisons to WOLF CREEK aren’t just apt – they’re inevitable.

But where WOLF CREEK offsets its horrific brutality with John Jarratt’s cartoonish ockerisms, KILLING GROUND plays its events with a straight face, making it all the more unpleasant. Aaron Glenane and Aaron Pedersen give impressive performances as the film’s two antagonists. What is it with people named Aaron? Their dynamic is reminiscent of Henry and Otis in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. These guys are cold and scary.

All the actors here had a tough job. There are more than a few extended scenes of dehumanization and drawn out cruelty – some involving a very young child. I can only imagine these sequences were hard to film for everyone involved. While not particularly graphic, they feel realistic. It’s easy to imagine events like this taking place in real life; and that’s probably because they do and the have.

The movie is filmed and presented very matter-of-factly, without a lot of fancy camera work or overbearing color manipulation. KILLING GROUND has a visual presence not unsimilar to that of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, which has forever been lauded for its documentary style.

In reading back over what I’ve written here so far, I realized just how many other titles I’ve cited as reference points for elements found in KILLING GROUND. While that may indicate that it’s not exactly fresh in its ideas, I see it more as a compliment – in that its execution allows it to stand side-by-side with those revered films. It’s tough, it’s nasty, and it doesn’t fuck around.

KILLING GROUND‘s rawness is refreshing, however, I’m uncertain if there’s much beyond the senselessness of its violence. I’m not quite sure what the filmmakers are trying to say with setting the story in a place where white settlers brutally massacred an indigenous tribe. I’m not sure what they’re trying to say by casting an actor of Aboriginal descent in the role of the ruthless killer. Maybe I’m missing something.

What I’m not missing is that KILLING GROUND is a very good, very powerful piece of work despite some questions I had as the credits rolled, and that it loses some of its steam towards the end. It’s already found receptive audiences at Sundance, and has been picked up for distribution by IFC Midnight. I’m always proud to see little Australian flicks make their way out into the world and shake things up.

KILLING GROUND will be released in select theaters and On Demand Friday, July 21st.

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