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CIFF: Red Hill (2010) ***

October 11, 2010

written by: Patrick Hughes

produced by: Patrick Hughes & Al Clark

directed by: Patrick Hughes

rated R (for strong bloody violence, and language)

95 min.

U.S. release date: November 5, 2010 (limited)

For several decades now there has been some fine work from the land Down Under making an impact in the film industry. Several directors, writers, and actors have been involved in some of the most memorable and award-winning films. So, it comes as no surprise that recent films like “The Square” and “Animal Kingdom” have been unofficially called the “Australian New Wave”, representing exciting and edgy work worthy of your time. Offering an homage to classic Westerns and paying tribute to the likes of Sergio Leone, Walter Hill, and the Coen Brothers, “Red Hill” may not be the most original tale but it does well with the clichés it utilizes, crafting a fine thriller.

Police officer Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten of “True Blood” fame) has moved to the small Australian high country town of Red Hill with his pregnant wife (Claire van der Boom, also in “The Square”) to get away from the hectic city life. The young couple hope to raise their son in a slow-paced environment, filled with fresh air and peace and quite. He doesn’t have the most positive impact with new boss, Old Bill (Steve Bisley, in a gruff role reminiscent of Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven”), on his first day on the job. Leaving his weapon still packed in a box and being from the city (to Old Bill that either means he’s lazy or expects a cushy gig), doesn’t score well.

Still, Shane is acknowledged as the new constable and introduced around town to the locals, shrugging off any derision thrown his way. The officers find it funny as they awkwardly send Shane off on horseback to look into the attack of a local farmer’s cow. He pushes through, making the most of it, knowing full well that this is bound to happen as “the new guy”.




Red Hill is that small town where everyone knows what and who is coming and going, where secrets are often buried but not forgotten. When an explosion at a local penitentiary allows the escape of a notorious prisoner, one such secret is about to violently come back to town. His name is Jimmy Conway (the superb Tom E. Lewis), an aborigine convicted of murdering his wife a while back and news of his escape has a panicked Old Bill readying a locked-and-loaded welcoming committee. There’s no time to fill Shane in on all the details much less the history, but he is soon forced to put all the pieces together on his own as the merciless body count rises with Jimmy’s arrival.

This is the first feature-length film by writer/editor/director Patrick Hughes, having previously worked on several short films. He manages to deliver a creative take on a “High Plains Drifter” premise here, providing engaging characters who inhabit a town with an enigmatic past. From a dusty lone road or a windswept gray mountain, Hughes invokes a palpable mystery and foreboding tension  from the country’s terrain.

While he may employ some traditional Western conventions, they are easily tolerable since he lets the audience discover the story on their own instead of providing the condescending exposition writers often resort to.




The only time the story gets derailed is during a subplot that is visited once too often involving a prowling panther that roams the countryside. It seems like an odd element, almost like an inserted visual effect that has no real context or explanation to make it a believable threat.

Playing a character who is  in over his head is no foreign ground for Kwanten and while Shane Cooper is not as dim-witted as Jason Stackhouse from “True Blood”, he does have some catching up to do. What the character lacks in experience, he makes up for with the right amount of  integrity and moral conviction. Kwanten sells it with humor and earnestness throughout several spot-on beats. One in particular is a scene that could have easily been a throwaway bit between Shane and his wife, when the character goes back to get his weapon that she unpacked for him.  Instead, it’s a tender moment that sells the needed connection between the two, a brief calm before Shane heads out to seek justice.

The standout role is Tom E. Lewis as the silent, scar-faced killer. When he first arrives in town dressed in a trench coat, wielding a shotgun with steely crazed eyes, he reminded me of Randall “Tex” Cobb from the Coen brothers classic “Raising Arizona”. But as the camera follows him between the light and shadows of a Red Hill night, we learn some important revelations about this intuitive tracker through his expressions and body language. Lewis, so good in another recent Australian Western, “The Proposition” owns this role that is crucial in conveyed a formidable antagonist and yet sells every note of the character’s eventual big reveal.

Kwanten’s presence will give this film some warranted notice once it gets a wider release, but as a whole this is a taut, suspenseful crime thriller that is reminiscent of great films of the past. If you’re a fan of the genre and want to see yet another solid Australian import, you’ll want to keep an eye out for “Red Hill”.


The 46th annual Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) runs from October 7-21.  Check here for more information.

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