Movie Review – Killing Ground (Monster Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that will further damage Australia’s reputation on tourism.

REVIEW:  It’s been a long time since I’ve been camping and there’s a big reason for that. Films in the backwoods genre like The Blair Witch Project and Deliverance have always freaked me out in my early years due the uniqueness of the settings. It is quite an oxymoron that an area like the Australian forests can be so vast and yet feel so claustrophobic.

It also doesn’t help that Australian films have made great horror films (like the Wolf Creek series) in the Outback that have spread unintentional (or is it intentional?) fear across the world about what it’s like to tour around Australia.

So when I heard that a small film called Killing Ground was making huge buzz at Sundance, I was curious. And to have Aaron Pedersen (who was fantastic as the lead in crime-thrillers Mystery Road and Goldstone) in the cast was just icing on the cake. Will Killing Ground further “damage” the reputation of Australia’s tourism?

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Young couple Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) drive down a long park road in order to spend a romantic New Year’s Eve on a remote lakefront. They’re initially a bit put off to find another tent already set up on the beach, then are quite dumbfounded when its inhabitants fail to turn up through the night.

Meanwhile, older married duo Margaret (Maya Strange) and Rob (Julian Garner) are likewise camping with their two children, bored teen Em (Tiarne Coupland) and toddler Ollie (played by twins Liam and Riley Parkes).

And in another subplot introduces German (Aaron Pedersen), a brooding ex-con with a vicious attack dog, and Chook (Aaron Glenane), his impulsive, dimwitted sidekick. Both have been seen earlier, trying to pick up female tourists at the pub and generally earning their reputation as the sleazies of the community.

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With a low budget, basically one location, a decidedly small cast and a simple well-worn premise, you gotta have a damn good director to make the most out of these resources. Thankfully, director Damien Power and the cast and crew are all up to the task.

One of the things that makes this film special is Power‘s refusal to abide to genre tropes. One example is the storytelling. As stated in the synopsis, there are three different subplots, but unlike a straightforward approach, these plots converge in a way that is inventive, refreshing and it is all done with a shocking singular take involving an infant.

Even the portrayal of the characters is told in a way that is out of the norm from thrillers. For the heroes, they are either more flawed or more capable than the audience would expect. As for the villains, we seem them early on, with a glimpse of how they go through their day-to-day life and it actually gives them a sense of humanity that makes them even scarier due to how true-to-life these characters can be.

Another example, there is a certain point in the film that bluntly tells the audience that all bets are off; no one has a guarantee of survival. Films of this genre need to be more like this, as the suspense is increased exponentially. This and other examples (like the restrained approach to violence, lack of musical score and character reversals) just goes to show that putting in a little effort in a well-worn genre goes a very long way.

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It is said that the restrictions of a low budget in a feature film can force a filmmaker to rely on their own creativity, and the crew of Killing Ground do not let Power down. Simon Chapman’s cinematography captures the Outback environment beautifully while also making the film it crushingly claustrophobic (even when the majority of the film is set during the day) while Katie Flaxman’s editing is kept minimalist to maximum effect. Last but not least, Leah Curtis‘ score is very effective ironically when it is sparingly used.

But all of this can be for naught if the characters were not portrayed in a way that makes the audience sympathetic towards them and gratefully, the actors are all up to snuff. Whilst Ian Meadows is likable as Ian (Who else?) the doctor/boyfriend, Harriet Dyer stands out as Sam, as she provides a sense of warmth as well as fearsome strength as the shit hits the fan. It also helps that it never feels phony since Dyer portrays it as if Sam always had that sense of strength within her; nor is it done to the detriment to other characters, as it feels rightly earned.

Special mention goes to Tiarnie Coupland, who is a real sport in portraying Em, the daughter of the family who were at the lakefront before the protagonists. It must not have been easy to go through the emotional as well as physical wringer and she does a very good job of it.

Like in every film, the protagonists are only as good as the antagonists and the two that the film has are very worthy. Aaron Pedersen, whom I remember as the heroic cop Jay Swan in films Mystery Road and Goldstone, plays against type as the collected, yet brooding German and he amply gives chills with his taciturn performance. While Aaron Glenane is great as the incredibly impulsive and unhinged Chook; and the two complement each other very well that they convince that they have a history together.

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As for its flaws, there are a few moments in the story that are still left hanging that might frustrate some and the fact that some of decisions that characters make in the film will definitely anger some, but considering that director Power had said that the 1997 Austrian film Funny Games was an influence in making Killing Ground, it was definitely intentional.

Overall, Killing Ground is a fantastic calling card for Damien Power, with very good performances, a willingness to make the most out of a well-worn genre and some visuals that will linger on your mind for a very long time.

Quickie Review

PROS

Damien Power’s willingness to make the most out of genre tropes

Very good performances

Some very haunting visuals

Refreshingly different storytelling

CONS

Will drastically affect Australian tourism

Minor frustrations from characters and plot decisions

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Harriet Dyer, Ian Meadows, Aaron Glenane, Maya Stange, Julian Garner, Tiarnie Coupland, Liam Parkes, Riley Parkes, Chris Armstrong
Director: Damien Power
Screenwriters: Damien Power

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