'Killing Ground': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Courtesy of Killing Ground
Harriet Dyer in 'Killing Ground'

Idyllic Australian bushland proves an inhospitable place for a romantic holiday retreat in writer-director Damien Power's chilling feature debut.

There's a long tradition of the rugged splendor and unsettling isolation of rural Australia feeding an atmosphere drenched in dread in Ozploitation shockers from Wake in Fright and Long Weekend through Razorback and Wolf Creek. Damien Power taps into that domestic B-movie history, also pulling inspiration from farther afield in films such as Straw Dogs, Deliverance and Funny Games in his unflinching first feature, Killing Ground.

Basically 88 minutes' worth of good reasons not to seek tranquil solitude in Australia's beautiful nature reserves, the film is a blunt, brutally effective survival tale distinguished by the parallel suspense tracks of its non-chronological structure. It should find a receptive audience among genre fans in VOD and niche theatrical slots.

Young couple Ian (Ian Meadows), a doctor, and Sam (Harriet Dyer), who works in publishing, head off for a romantic New Year's break at a remote riverside spot outside Sydney that he visited as a child. They are somewhat disappointed to arrive at the campsite and find they are not alone, though there's no sign of the occupants of the neighboring tent. But they don't intend to let any possible company cramp their style, especially Sam, who establishes herself as an assertive character by popping the question, rather than waiting for Ian to propose.

Writer-director Power and his editor Katie Flaxman ably throw the viewer off-balance by intercutting between these scenes and those showing the family in the unoccupied tent: hippie-throwback dad Rob (Julian Garner), his similarly mellow partner Margaret (Maya Stange), their nightmare-prone, 16-year-old daughter Em (Tiarnie Coupland) and toddler son Ollie (played by twins Liam and Riley Parkes). Em is a typically jaded teen reluctant to get with the family vacation vibe, so she stays behind when her parents and baby brother head off on a hike to a nearby waterfall, reputedly the site of a massacre back during the early-settler days.

That historic detail turns out to be a red herring, as does the vague hint of some kind of surreal bend in time. Instead, it gradually becomes clear that the glimpses of the two sets of characters are occurring not simultaneously but several hours, or perhaps a day, apart.

Sam and Ian try not to let the unwelcome surprises of nature rattle them too much, but any semblance of a serene getaway dissolves when they discover Ollie wandering about untended, and a flat tire prevents them from taking the traumatized boy back to town for help.

Enter two sleazy locals — 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, cruising female tourists at the pub and generally earning their reputation as undesirable community members. Chook arrives at the campsite scene first, convincing Sam to stay with the baby while he and Ian head toward the falls to look for Ollie's missing family. But when German shows up, the simmering tension explodes into full-blown hell as the unsuspecting weekenders battle to outwit the redneck psychos.

The time-shuffling structure is particularly effective as we witness the terrifying ordeal of Sam and Ian, while at the same time piecing together the fates of Rob, Margaret and Em, none of it pretty. There's not a great deal of subtlety or originality, but Power shows sound judgment in deciding where to portray the horror with unblinking realism (without venturing too deep into torture porn), and where to allude more obliquely to the sexual violence.

The movie benefits from making Sam the most resourceful character, without turning her into a superhero or rendering Ian completely useless, and Dyer's performance gives the unfolding nastiness a sympathetic center. Among the generally solid cast, Pedersen, a popular Australian Aboriginal TV actor playing against type, also impresses as a cold, taciturn type, his eyes void of feeling.

Cinematographer Simon Chapman contributes to an enveloping sense of place with his widescreen images of the remote locations. And Power shows welcome restraint in avoiding the usual cheap tricks of jump scares and jarring music cues, instead employing the ominous strings of Leah Curtis' score to quieter, more unnerving effect, while deftly using the erratic visibility of the dense bushland to amp up the suspense and confusion.

Production companies: Hypergiant Films, Superpower Films, Arcadia
Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Harriet Dyer, Ian Meadows, Aaron Glenane, Maya Stange, Julian Garner, Tiarnie Coupland, Liam Parkes, Riley Parkes, Chris Armstrong
Director-screenwriter: Damien Power
Producers: Joe Weatherstone, Lisa Shaunessy
Executive producers: Michael Gudinski, John Molloy
Director of photography: Simon Chapman
Production & costume designer: Claire Granville
Music: Leah Curtis
Editor: Katie Flaxman
Visual effects: Scott Geersen
Casting: Marianne Jade

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
Sales: Films Distribution, Paris

88 minutes

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