Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Wolf Creek

Ebert says you might not want to be my friend anymore for seeing this movie. You've been forewarned.

Basically this one has no surprises. You get the whole film in the one paragraph snyposis and there aren't really any plot twists, but it succeeds in the details. The first 45 minutes or so build up ominously to the night where the three cityfolk break down on at Wolf Creek and encounter the villain. There is a possiblity of romance between the dude and one of the girls, and a festive spirit hangs over the group, who are looking to have a good time (unlike in Hostel, presumably, there is no pretense to what "a good time" means in this film; the party at the beginning might seem like a dumb frathouse bash to me, but there is no implication that they are doing anything other than enjoying each other's company). It might be a bit too much downtime with characters that aren't especially interesting, but I can't complain about the effect of the first half on the whole, which is considerable.

The middle section is where things start to get really good. The three travellers meet up with a farmer type who seems like a nice country fellow with a wicked sense of humor; he offers to help with their car and reassures them that they should be all set by the morning. The whole sequence takes place at night, in near pitch black, which is a wonderful touch. You can only use the word "ominous" so many times in reviewing a horror film, but this sequence is shot and acted in such a way that makes hell seem around the corner. We breathe a few sighs of relief, but we can't help but feel that something is wrong. The best moment comes when they are stiting around a campfire, having beers, and the city guy makes a comment like "I bet you love the freedom..." and goes on to compare the farmer to Crocodile Dundee; the latter, who has been jollying it up and spreading cheer, gets really quiet and shoots a look that ought to go down in horror film history. With a slight damper on the evening, the three campers go to sleep while the man works on their engine.

After a few seconds of black screen, the next morning begins with an excellent series of shots, slowly revealing one of the women tied up in a barn. She breaks free and walks outside, and the horror begins...

Clearly Wolf Creek is just another of a recent surge of Texas Chainsaw Massacre homages, but it works, oddly, because it keeps things simple and doesn't bog the narrative down with pointless subtext and sideplots. Critics like Walter Chaw are right in that there is not a lot going in terms of theme; you might say it's a mini-Barton Fink cautionary tale, shattering the myth of good country people. But the lack of pretense is really what makes this film interesting. Like Even Dwarves Started Small, there is something a twisted sort of purity to it. It truly is just a nightmare. It's like the archetypical dreams I've had before where I'm being chased by someone, and I keep getting caught right as I seem to get away. As in those dreams, any sense of time and place vanishes in the last sequence of the film. Although it would be accurate to label it as "realist horror", the final third is very expressionistic and even surreal. One visual motif that really works in the film is the intercutting of landscape shots with closeups. The rough outback lends itself well to visual poetry. The horror sequences work quite well as genre entertainment, creating tension effectively. And there is a brilliant series of shots in the last scene of the film that nails the "sigh of relief" moment that so many films of this type handle clumsily.

If the film is really getting at anything, it seems to be that line between reality and nightmare. It begins with a statement that the film is based on actual events, and then reels off a statistic about the number of people who go missing in Australia, and the 5-10% who are never found. It ends with a cryptic shot that unites the killer with the landscape. As an insight into human nature, it's nothing on the level of Kubrick's bleak conclusions, but it makes its point by the end- unspeakably terrible things happen to people without explanation, and often at the hands of other human beings. This is reality. Is it, therefore, something we should be making and watching movies about? I'm not sure, but I have to admit that I'm fascinated by it.

Closing note to anyone who might be interested in seeing it but is unsure of content- there are a couple really gritty moments and several killings in the film, but you honestly "see" a lot less than might be expected. I'm not sure if it was edited heavily for American release, but the director avoids several money shots that the new breed of American horror might have milked to please the gorehounds. Like the original TCM, the film is all about the terror of anticipation, the moments in between the physical pain. Obviously, it's not for all audiences; that's a no-brainer.


At 12:42 AM, Blogger Nate said...

Thanks for the review, William. Too bad we can’t be friends anymore.

As implied in your post, Wolf Creek seems to be an ace example of a new breed of horror film that’s cropped up ever since the original TCM came out in 1974. It’s more like a “terror” film than a “horror” film, really. I suppose I would appreciate the existence of such a film if it had used its nasty realism as a platform for serious moral inquiry, but based on your description and Roger Ebert’s review, it sounds as though the movie wallows in the same old facile nihilism of its predecessors.

Remember that interesting article Ebert wrote following the release of Chaos? In it, he asks the question, “What good is it to show evil without expressing an attitude toward that evil?” I think it’s a good question. At least Pasolini’s Salo, a film that you rejected, had some kind of moral purpose to justify all the brutality, right?

So, what exactly can be learned from this film? Why are films like this made, and why do people go to them? I’ll let you be my friend again if you humor me with a response.

At 2:26 AM, Blogger William said...

I don't think it would be accurate to call it a nihilist film. Although it's not explicitly "about" anything, it's quite silly, in my opinion, to say that this type of film expresses no attitude about the evil it presents- the attitude is one of horror, of shock. It serves to remind us that terror is a major part of the human experience, that humans are not basically good, and, in the case of Wolf Creek, that reality is often worse than fantasy.

That's the best defense I can give for the genre. Many people watch these films for the wrong reason, and don't realize that they are the true villain of the film. It's just that not all films need to comment on that sick voyeurism like Carpenter's "Cigarette Burns" or "Rear Window" do. Some just need to be pure, unpretentious nightmares, I believe, and that's what Wolf Creek is. It's most definitely not entertainment. I can't say anything more on the matter.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Nate said...

We don’t need to press the issue any further, although I’m very interested in the invisible line Ebert alludes to in his review. It’s this line that leads us to accept some films of this ilk and reject others. Where do we decide to draw this line, and what guides our decision?

The other thing I object to is that films like these seem ultimately reductive. I find that the best horror films, apart from being pleasurable on an entertainment level, are also metaphorically rich, using the presumption of evil (or in some cases, the supernatural) for social, philosophical, and theological inquiry. I find these to be both stimulating and useful—I don’t need a film like Wolf Creek to remind me that humans are basically evil when left to their own devices, and I certainly don’t take any pleasure from seeing innocent people imperiled to such an extreme degree.

Your response may be the film’s most intelligent defense, and for that I’m grateful. It’s nice to know someone who can stomach this sort of film and report back with such cool objectivity. Now go see Hostel. (Or, better yet, come over to my place and we’ll watch some Val Lewton chillers.)


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