Category Archives: The Horseman

Snowtown

2010 was a great year for Australian crime film. In addition to the excellent Animal Kingdom, last year saw the release of the neo-noir Western,  Red Hill, and the gritty revenge flick, The Horseman.

While one can argue the merits and otherwise of aspects of these films, all three were highly original, energetic attempts to put an Australian face on some of key sub-genres of crime film.

Interestingly, all three were also made by first time directors.

This trend appears set to continue in 2011 with the yet to be released Snowtown, first time director Justin Kurzal’s take on one of Australia’s worst serial killing sprees, the ‘Snowtown murders’.

For those who need to be brought up to speed, the Snowtown murders, also known as the ‘bodies in the barrels murders’, involved the killing of 12 people between August 1992 and May 1999. The crimes were discovered when the remains of  8 of the victims were found in barrels of acid in a disused bank building in Snowtown, South Australia, a small economically depressed area 145 kilometres north of Adelaide.

Four people were eventually arrested for the murders. The ringleader, John Bunting, was a white trash suburban psychopath with neo-Nazi leanings who hated gays, pedophiles, very fat people and drug users.

The victims were killed, often tortured beforehand, on a whim for perceived infringements of Bunting’s personal code. They included friends and relatives of the killers. Usually, the victims social security and bank details were obtained and the murderers continued to collect their benefits after their deaths.

As a rule, I ‘m not usually a huge fan of true crime film, but if the menace Kurzal has managed to cram into this very short teaser trailer is anything to go by, Snowtown it looks pretty compelling. The vibe I get from it is similar to the 1998 Australian film The Boys.

Loosely based on another real life crime, the rape and killing of a young nurse in Sydney, The Boys focused on the 24 hours leading up to the crime, in which violent psychopath Brett Sprague (brilliantly played by Aussie actor David Wehnam), is released from prison and returns to his long-suffering mother’s house in Sydney’s western suburbs.

It’s been several years since I’ve seen The Boys, but I remember the ominous, claustrophobic feel produced as Speague, accompanied by a moody score by Australian jazz bad The Necks, prowled the interiors of the mother’s flimsy fibro house like a ticking time bomb, bashing her boyfriend, abusing his girlfriend, and winding up his two brothers. From the very first frame there’s a sense bad things are going to happen, that in no way detracts from the horror for the viewer when they do.

The Boys attempted to examine what kind of people would commit such a horrendous crime and the environment that would produce them. Snowtown looks set to cover similar terrain, hopefully with similar effectiveness.

Snowtown will premier at the Adelaide film Festival in late February.

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Hardcore Horseman

The Horseman is about the transformation of a balding 44-year old small businessman into a killing machine as he tracks down the men he holds responsible for the death of his daughter. She died after participating in a hard core porn film, a video cassette of which mysteriously appears in his post one day.

This 2008 film, which only got local release in Australia in 2010, taps into a rich vein of movies about tightly wound white men who’ve played by the rules all their lives but finally snap over one injustice against them (perceived or real) too many.

It immediately reminded me of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, which featured a conservative mid-west businessman (played by George C Scott) who ventures into the sordid LA underworld to look for his run-away daughter now making porn movies. But although both films are about men taking justice into their own hands when the police prove ineffectual, The Horseman is a very different beast to its 1979 counterpart.

The Horseman opens with the central character, Christian, a pest exterminator, beating up a man with a crowbar. After extracting a few answers, Christian douses the man’s house in petrol and sets it on fire, presumably with his victim still inside, changing from his work clothes as it burns in the background.

Christian spends the rest of the film traveling up and down the Queensland coast, his journey interspersed with memories of his daughter as a child, locating the men connected with the movie. Each encounter gives him just enough information to move to the next.

He confronts and for the most part kills the men he comes into contact with, including the distributor, the cameraman, and the actors. There is genuine ambivalence in his first decision to kill but it quickly becomes easier and his methods get more and more extreme. This is fueled by the fact that virtually none of the men are repentant and their taunts that Jessie, the daughter, came to shoot of her own free will. It’s the one thing Christian absolutely does not want to hear.

The only break in the killing occurs when Christian reluctantly picks up Alice, a young runaway, to whom he can be the sort of father figure his biological daughter rejected.

The film, populated by an almost completely Queensland cast, was shot by first time Australian director Steven Kastrissios on a budget of eighty grand. Not too shabby an effort in anyone’s books.

Critics singled out the violence for particular criticism. There’s certainly no shortage of it; knives, pliers and a blow torch are some of the weapons of choice. There are a lot of fight scenes, some of them unnecessarily drawn out.

That said, the film is well shot and Kastrissios gets good performances from his unknowns, particularly Peter Marshall. As Christian, he brings the required everyman quality and look to the role although his rapid transformation into a cold-blooded super killer able to hold his own against hardened criminals undermines this authenticity.

The contrast with Hardcore’s Jake Van Dorn, couldn’t be greater. Van Dorn’s violent side emerges gradually and the results are mild compared to Christian’s killing spree.

Van Dorn hires a cheap private eye, Andy (another fantastic performance by Peter Boyle), to find his daughter after she goes missing on a church retreat in California. Reluctantly, Van Dorn makes the decision to enter the world of pornography by masquerading as a porn producer casting actors in order to get close to his daughter.

At the conclusion of Hardcore, the daughter willingly accompanies her father home. Even if Christian’s daughter were alive you get the feeling there’d be no such happy ending. It soon becomes clear Christian doesn’t really want to understand what his daughter did, he just wants to punish the people he holds responsible.

The DVD extras on The Horseman contain a couple of deleted scenes that would have added a lot to the film. This includes a confrontation between Jessie and Christian in which she taunts him over the affair with his secretary that presumable led to the dissolution of his marriage, and threatens to move out. There a palpable sense the daughter is already involved with the men who will eventually contribute to her death.

The two films have a number of other interesting differences.

It’s been a while since I watched Hardcore, but I vividly remember the scene where Andy, in an attempt to explain to his client what has happened, takes Van Dorn to a sleazy porn theatre screening the film with his daughter in it.

It’s a throw back to the time when you had to physically go into a cinema to watch porn film rather than just click three times on your computer mouse. These days, anyone with a hand-held camera and some willing participants can make it and load it onto the web.

The setting for Schrader’s film is the sleazy world of theatres, sex shops and peep shows that used to inhabit the inner urban sections of many cities. The danger in The Horseman lies in the outer suburbs and the bush along the Queensland coast, home to pockets of entrenched disadvantage and one of the most casualised workforces in the country.

Indeed, it’s easy to see Christian as one of the army of independent contractors who flourished over the decade of conservative rule in Australia before being hit hard by the financial crisis in 2007. His wife has left him, business probably sucks, he’s got mortgage stress up to the back teeth and his daughter hates him.

Perhaps this was part of the point Kastrissios was trying to make. If so, he doesn’t quite get there.

This review is the second in a series looking at Australian crime films of 2010. The first, Red Hill, can be viewed here. The third, Animal Kingdom, will appear before the New Year.