By Jed Mayer | Press Play May 29, 2014 at 3:11PM
The 90s saw Australian filmmakers enjoying worldwide success with a series of offbeat comedies that celebrated outsider status and often mixed challenging subject matter with laughs. As inventive as these films were, their success overshadowed the dark history of Australian cinema, Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock supplanted by Priscilla and Muriel in the cultural memory. But in 2005 that repressed history resurfaced in one of the most disturbing films to come from down under, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek. Dismissed by many critics as misogynistic torture porn, the film is in fact a compendium of filmic tropes that simultaneously resurrects and comments on Australia’s peculiar film history.
One of the most successful and iconic figures of Australian cinema is Crocodile Dundee, the raffish survivalist bushman played by Paul Hogan. In the years following the success of the Dundee franchise, other Australian directors would achieve commercial—and sometimes aesthetic—success with such offbeat comedies as Flirting, Strictly Ballroom, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and of course Muriel’s Wedding, directed by Hogan. Dealing with topics that had been rarely addressed in comedy, such as racism, gay and transgender identities, and disability (not to mention ABBA), these films also embraced a garish and camp aesthetic that was refreshingly at odds with American and European preoccupation with upward mobility.
But however much these films challenged certain conventions of the comedy genre, they arguably contributed more to the worldwide success of their stars (Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, Toni Collette, and director Baz Luhrman) than they did to Australian cinema. The same might be said of the path taken by Dundee’s demonic doppelganger Mad Max, who launched Mel Gibson into stardom. While the original 1979 film was an inventive transformation of the New Wave’s darker stylings into irresistible grindhouse fare, as the franchise gained commercial success and higher budgets, it devolved into the disastrously overblown theatricals of Thunder-Dome.
On its release, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek was regarded by most serious critics as slasher shlock, yet it can also be read as a disturbing treatise on Australian film and the peculiar cultural and geographical history that underpins it. Certainly this film is not recommended for the queasy, but it could also be considered less a celebration of violence than an indictment of it. By exploring the relationship between character and setting, it offers a powerful meditation on the causes of violence, one that has resonance well beyond its Australian setting.
The film begins in Muriel territory, with three twenty-somethings partying poolside before piling into a car the next morning. Liz and Christy are both British tourists, and their Sydney pal Ben is accompanying them on a road trip on their way to the airport in Queensland. They travel the forbidding spaces of the Great Northern Highway, which rolls through the arid western deserts with only rare interruptions by a roadhouse or rest-stop. When they do finally hit a gas station, they are harassed by a group of slack-jawed yokels, who threaten the women with a “gang-bang.” Ben tries to man up on the occasion, but it is a role he is clearly uncomfortable with: he is feminized, and the women are verbally objectified and victimized. The film will continue to explore the ways in which gender is as much a product of cultural context as biology.
Soon after this disturbing encounter, they arrive at their first destination: Wolf Creek, site of a massive asteroid crater. As they walk around the eerie terrain, the atmosphere becomes reminiscent of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1972), in which the students and teachers of a girl’s boarding school go for a holiday outing at a strange and ominous rock formation, where several of the girls mysteriously disappear. The dream-like rhythms and surreal landscape of Wolf Creek evoke a similar sense of the uncanny, and likewise hint at the spiritual traditions of Australia’s aboriginal population, so closely linked to the continent’s unique ecosystem. This dreamy atmosphere culminates in the travelers’ watches stopping simultaneously, suggesting a spiritual or astral influence on the dire events that follow.
Such scenes are significantly enhanced by the film’s astonishingly inventive sound design. François Tétaz composed a score woven out of a collection of field recordings made from the sound of power lines eerily humming and vibrating in the desert winds. When these rise to muted crescendos, they vaguely resemble the conventional horror movie “stingers” that punctuate scare scenes, but with a subtle organicism rooted in the ambient soundscape.
When they try to leave, their car refuses to start, and as they wait through the night for the unlikely arrival of another visitor they are “rescued” by a rugged frontiersman, Mick, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Crocodile Dundee, but one badly gone to seed and stripped of all his rugged charms. The resemblance is made explicit later on, after an hours-long tow back to Mick’s compound. As they sit around a campfire before their good Samaritan goes to work on their car, the gap between rural and urban, Australian and English, goes from awkward to excruciating, until Ben tries to break the tension by quoting Dundee’s famous line, “You call that a knife? Now that’s a knife!” which Mick doesn’t quite get, and assumes he’s being mocked.
And, in a sense, he is. Earlier in this uncomfortable encounter Ben tells him he’s from Sydney, to which Mick replies, “Poofter capital of Australia!” This further hit on Ben’s threatened masculinity can be seen as motivating his later insult, intended to mark Mick as a redneck, a bumpkin, a rural relic, lost in the past of a modernizing nation of which Sydney is the urban symbol. But the nation’s repressed history takes its revenge, as Mick drugs them with what he claims to be “rainwater from the top end.” Thinking they are partaking of the landscape’s natural purity, they are in fact being prepared for slaughter. This irony is anticipated in the campfire conversation when Ben enthuses about Mick’s life in the open air, his freedom in nature, to which Mick bluntly replies: “What the fuck are you talking about?” Idealization of nature is a product of the urban middle class, not of those who scrabble a living off the landscape.
That campfire exchange, and the class and gender politics that frame it, is crucial for understanding the violence that follows. While the women are tortured, they also fight against, and momentarily escape, their captor. It should be noted that much of the film’s violence occurs off-screen, though Mick’s gleeful sadism and Kristy’s abject fear create an unbearable sense of dread. During their escape the film recalls another great film from the Australian New Wave, Wake in Fright, which makes the expansive landscapes of the Outback into a paradoxically claustrophobic space of dread. Threat lurks everywhere in the wide-open desert spaces. Holes appear in their getaway vehicle, inexplicably, until we realize they are made by a rifle fired from hundreds of yards away. As in the Mad Max films, the freedom of the open road is turned into a space of entrapment and violence.
This is the end of the frontier. The exploitation of the landscape and near-genocide of the native peoples of Australia is supplanted by a more mysterious, surreptitious form of violence. The film opens with the vague and sinister words: “30,000 people are reported missing in Australia every year. 90% are found within a month. Some are never seen again.” Though this is conventional thriller verbiage, it is also an altogether different vision of the country than that offered by Baz Luhrmann’s camp epic Australia or Paul Hogan’s lovable bushman. Like the great films of the 1970s, Wolf Creek de-romanticizes the landscape, and reminds us that the past is never past, and that violence can erupt from the most seemingly remote places.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.