November 29, 2010
Apparently there is a panther roaming free in rural Victoria. It seems anomalous. But isn’t anomaly what the contemporary state of our country is built upon?
Writer/director Patrick Hughes’ first feature film Red Hill (2010) is all about the problematic existence of an introduced species in an Indigenous landscape. There have been reports of “phantom panthers” in Victoria, NSW and WA ever since the end of WWII when an unknown number of black panthers supposedly escaped into our enormous land mass. The panthers are supposedly further responsible for the disappearance and deaths of numerous domestic animals and livestock. In Red Hill the “phantom panther” operates in parallel to the white Europeans (now considered “Australians”) who have also been “introduced” to the land. Like the panther, they too are responsible for the disappearance and deaths of numerous Indigenous people and, also like the panther, have been held relatively unaccountable for their violent and destructive actions.
Primarily and thematically, Red Hill is a revenge thriller where a single physical embodiment of our country’s severely wronged Indigenous people comes back, very much like the Freudian “return of the repressed”. For Freud the repressed can never truly be destroyed and will always re-emerge, something we see clearly from one character’s inability to live with himself as the persistent memories of past events haunt his conscience/unconscious. Moreover, when the repressed returns for Freud it is distorted, almost unrecognisable, and our single physical embodiment of this returned repression, Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis), is physically disfigured (something that also operates as a literal historical scarring.) Considering Jimmy thusly provides at least a somewhat more preferable understanding as to why protagonist Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) is entirely exempt from the rampage of revenge that ensues. Jimmy (as a symptom of the repressed) only takes his revenge on the men personally responsible for the rape and murder of his pregnant wife and his subsequent incarceration as it is their collective unconscious that recall him and his suffering in the first instance.
Whilst I don’t think anyone would argue that the white men gunned down in this film aren’t absolutely deserving of their ill fates, there might be some viewers who find the depiction of Jimmy to verge a little on the dangerous side insofar as he is less humanised than Cooper who, despite being an example of yet more useless white people rapidly breeding, appears to be the “hero” of the story. Cooper is characterised as the moral centre of the film and as such the audience is aligned with him as a primary point of identification. A police officer who has moved from the fast pace of city life to a small, quiet country town, he is both slightly inept as an officer – he misplaces his own firearm and is late on his first day of work; and more compassionate than his country folk – he shows ethical resistance to actually pulling the trigger on his gun when faced with a “criminal” hoping that perhaps other, more passive measures can be taken.
However, in characterising Jimmy as less humanist than Cooper I would suggest the film is further illustrating the continued prejudice and adversity our Indigenous people face in what is left of their own country. At the film’s end Jimmy is still held accountable for his actions by white man’s law. The incredible injustice of this inevitability really resonates as we come to realise that the only person for whom there will ever be a future in this country is the white man. Whilst this is not a particularly hopeful ending it is, dare I say, somewhat accurate.
Finally, a shot of the panther looking out onto the vast landscape it finds itself king of reminds us with bitterness that once a species is introduced it is almost impossible to eradicate and certainly its effect on the landscape is absolutely irreversible.
An engaging drama and an important commentary on the horrific history this country will always be haunted by, Red Hill is an impressive film for a first time filmmaker from whom I hope we will see a great deal more.