Killing Ground Review [Fantasia 2017]
While dive-bar patrons argue over how nonlinear storytelling hasn’t worked since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Damien Power’s Killing Ground proves that jumps-in-time can *indeed* bolster storytelling. Gruesome, savage storytelling at that. In a very Wolf Creek kind-of-way, Power debases morality in the most nonchalant manner. This is true horror. Men who can swig cans of bourbon & cola while a violated teenager lays mostly-naked, fully unconscious. A graphic description for my intro paragraph? Yes – because you need to understand. Killing Ground leads you to a cliff of despair, then pushes you head-first. Hacking its way through a thicket of tension that grows faster than characters can chop it away.
Things start off cheery enough. Young couple Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer) are looking to spend New Year’s Eve alone, under the stars where Ian used to camp. When they arrive, their thoughts of private vacationing are dashed by an already-built tent. Mother Margaret (Maya Stange) and Rob (Julia Garner) apparently had the same idea, except with daughter Em (Tiarnie Coupland) and baby brother Ollie in tow. No bother. There’s enough room on the beach and celebrations are tame – until two seedy locals appear. German (Aaron Pedersen) and Chook (Aaron Glenane) go hunting with their dog Banjo, but not in the legal sense. What are two seedy yokels to do on a boring afternoon? You might not be ready for the answer.
If my first impression didn’t scare you off – or if you already know what Aussie darkness tastes like – then Killing Ground is for you. This isn’t a pulpy midnight watch. This is one of those horror/thrillers that aims at humanity and fires away. Power doesn’t shy away from making his good-old-boy rednecks into disciples of the devil. What they do will make you cringe, weep and clutch a loved one. Very Snowtown Murders. Very Hounds Of Love. This is the kill-or-be-killed, primitive type of vision that devolves into caveman sensibilities. Why? Because we’re all too safe in our “woke” little bubbles. Civilization is a scary place, and Killing Ground is a ravenous reminder of what we choose to ignore.
Editor Katie Flaxman remains the unsung hero of Killing Ground, because it’s her cuts that detail Power’s barbed storytelling. Word to the wise: pay attention. Don’t even blink. There’s so much composition in each shot that leads into a widow’s web of sorrow, as breathlessness becomes an unrelenting constant. Bit by bit a brutal puzzle pieces itself together, until a realization that’s euphoric in its devastation. The stars align in the most punishing fashion, but never lost is true-crime realness that’s the gut-pounding blow you do nothing to avoid. Flaxman is the one who cobbles together Power’s larger idea, polishing the edges and sharpening momentum that attributes to a crushing pace. Never overloaded with information, nor left in the dark.
Then again, what would any of this be without a solid cast? Editors assemble the pieces, but performances are what make the scene. Take Aaron Glenane for example, whose presence blares a warning alarm of bad things to come. Same for his equally gruff accomplice Aaron Pedersen, who is the older, “wiser” vet when it comes to no good. There’s no subtlety – German and Chook are bad men. Not the kind who make mistakes. The kind who strap women to trees and shoot garbage off their head. Or endanger babies because they’re crying too much. Or kill just for the demented fun of it all. Even worse? They’re enjoying a “game” while crying victims wrestle with finality. What Glenane and Pedersen accomplish on beckoning hand motions alone is enough to spell dread – and that’s before guns start firing and wicked smiles are shared.
Their prey – those unprepared vacationers forced into a survival horror bootcamp – prod plausible reactions to terroristic scenarios. These aren’t trained ex-marines or something. Ian is a doctor, Em a teenager, Sam a newly-engaged someday mommy. We don’t always get the hero we deserve, which only makes Killing Ground more unrelenting. Rob never goes Rambo on German or Chook. He attempts to protect his family in a way that the fatherly figure who plays “Silent Night” on guitar would (a song which lingers deliciously over end credits). Police intervene, tides may turn, escape seems close – but don’t expect mercy. Power goes vacation-from-hell and never backs down. The tears that role when one character accepts fate – downright demoralizing. Yet there’s investment in story and torment in the chase. Not just disgust for genre’s sake.
Killing Ground does *a lot* right. From the start there’s foreshadowing by historical remembrance, along with manipulation of plot. Damien Power’s intro smacks of family-friendly comfort, only to unleash his barbaric woodland nightmare as scenic serenity blends with isolated claustrophobia. Foxes saunter on screen, the hounds are released and there’s no reconciliation until the game has been played in full. And who remains the victor? Women flash their mama bear claws in a way that outshines gender counterparts, no matter whether successful – but a victor is hard to crown. Souls are taken, innocence is stripped and civility becomes unhinged – you don’t need a monster when the worst kind already exists.
What Backcountry did for campfire creature attacks Killing Ground does for murderous bushmen in the same setting.