The hideous blank at 'Wolf Creek.'.
The question I want to address in this essay is why Australian critics are lauding Greg McLean's Wolf Creek, a modest little film that fails to meet expectations, even within the genre to which it claims to belong: the horror movie. What troubles me most is that even usually intelligent reviewers seem to have put their analytic faculties on hold when speaking about this particular offering. In fact, opinion-makers praising this movie are reminiscent of the scene in Flying High (Jim Abrahams and David Zucker, 1980) where passengers line up to smack a hysterical old lady--except that in this instance the critics are lining up to kiss McLean's boots.
This state of affairs is the clearest evidence we have of the triumph of mediocrity, and of the lamentable state of film criticism. When reviewers can no longer draw breath and refer to the vast film archive in order to make an informed comparison and analysis between an exemplary genre film and one that fails to meet standards, we know that something is wrong. Granted, a great deal of the praise Wolf Creek has received is indicative of our reluctance to criticize an Australian movie that is actually receiving recognition and making money at the box office--a rare enough occurrence, and we don't want to nip it in the bud. Still, it is regrettable that most reviewers have raised a mediocre film to the level of a superlative one. Given the events portrayed in the film, it is perhaps understandable that most of the poor dears have behaved like shell-shocked war correspondents; incoherent and incomprehensible, they have been uttering whatever hyperbole pops into their heads. Most bizarrely, Megan Spencer from The Movie Show on SBS even declared that she could not rate the film; she did not know how, she said in near pop-eyed hysteria. What does it mean when an otherwise intelligent cinephile declares that she does not know how to rate what is a passable film?
Before I address that question, let me declare my hand. I am a horror movie enthusiast; my love of the genre knows no bounds. I have been enjoying and studying horror movies and thrillers since my teens. Even now my charnel house sensibility shows no signs of abating. As I like to say to friends, I would rather watch a bad horror movie than a well-meaning 'human drama' full of solid performances and good intentions.
Prior to moving on it might also be useful to clarify terms of reference and definitions. Strictly speaking, Wolf Creek is not a horror movie. Nor is it schlocky enough to be a slasher film. Rather, it belongs to that ever-popular sub-genre that fuses both of the above to create its own category: the serial killer genre, best exemplified by Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) and Se7en (David Fincher, 1995); consequently, when I compare Wolf Creek to another film, my terms of reference will be the serial killer genre, not the horror movie, though there will be occasional unavoidable intrusions and overlaps, as you will see.
It goes without saying that violence of one form or another plays a major role in thrillers. Given that, it serves our purpose to distinguish between the different types of screen violence. As far as I am concerned, the violence depicted in films falls into two categories. First there's the cartoon-like, easy to laugh off violence one tends to see in the majority of horror movies and stalk-and-slash films. Then there's the unflinching, steely violence that belongs to the realm of the real world. Most psychosexual thrillers fall into this latter category because they often fulfil a moral or psychological obligation that allows the filmmaker to explore topical issues and provoke thought in the viewer. As a form of fantasy, the former type of screen violence tends to serve a purgative function in the viewer, usually expelled through incredulous laughter. Se7en, for example, is a morally progressive film about barbarous and immoral acts. Zombie Apocalypse (Ruben Galindo, 1985) is a laugh-fest. As the violence in Wolf Creek is not cartoonish, easy to dismiss or laughable, I will treat the film with due respect and not be flip about its end results, even though it clearly lacks the progressive moral stance of Se7en. Audiences must endeavour to distinguish between these two different types of screen violence because they evoke different emotional states in them. By doing so, they can begin to contextualize Wolf Creek.
Given that one of my points of contention is the critical reception given to this film, it might be useful to examine some of the reviews, before moving on to aesthetic considerations. 'This is the best Australian movie since Lantana ...' says Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian Weekly. 'Brilliant ... intelligent ...' declares Evan Williams in the Weekend Australian. From these reviews flowed everything else: awed, high-pitched voices, wide-eyed earnest declarations and so on.
By what standards is Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) a film to measure others against? Are we meant to be raising the bar or lowering it? Surely, if Wolf Creek is to be compared with anything in recent Australian cinema it ought to be the brilliantly kinetic The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005). Lantana was, at best, an above average telemovie that found its way to the big screen. Filled with a parade of sad-sack talking heads bemoaning their middle-class predicament, there is nothing remotely cinematic about it. The ultimate aim of movies like it is to extend the mediocrity and alienation of television soap operas into the cinema auditorium. Given the accolades Lantana received, it would be safe to say that it achieved its aspirations beyond its wildest dreams. Not only that but it also managed to convince moviegoers that a hollow, middlebrow kind of cinema is all they can expect and will ever get; hence four years later Wolf Creek passing as 'intelligent' cinema.
We might never know what Evan Williams meant when he called Wolf Creek 'intelligent' because he did not elaborate. He simply said that it is intelligent. The question then remains: intelligent in what way? Is the movie's intelligence to be found in the way it explores and exposes the myth of the Australian character, or is it that McLean pushes established cinematic tropes to the limit in the hope of offering unique insight? After seeing Wolf Creek for oneself, one is tempted to take Williams' remark as the rhetoric of an overexcited reviewer hoping to find a glimmer of redemption in an empty catalogue of cruelties. He would not have bothered to make such outrageous claims if Wolf Creek had been a standard Hollywood slasher, which still leaves us with the question: what got him so excited about this film? My guess is that if Wolf Creek had not been made in Australia, it would have vanished without a trace. No one would have taken the slightest notice. It is precisely because it is an Australian film that eschews the usual art-house pretensions in favour of commercial criteria that critics have felt compelled to take sides; and because the film is so different from the 'ideas' films we tend to make, people are scrambling to find merit where none exists.
It's true that Wolf Creek couldn't have come along at a better time. Not only has it touched a raw nerve; it's severed it at the base. Taken straight from the headlines, its subject matter is nothing if not topical, and one that still holds true for urban Australia: the mad, bad outback, the harsh, alien heart of darkness that both fascinates and repels the whites that cling to the continent's shrinking green hemline. This paradox has fascinated artists of all stripes since white settlement, and we have many a great testament to that effect. In film, the most obvious names to put forward are Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1970), Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1970) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). There are others, of course, but these examples caught a moment in the Australian psyche, and have become synonymous with a kind of fear of the outback that still freezes the blood.
As someone who has an ambivalent relationship with the outback, I was excited by the prospect of Wolf Creek. So why did it fail to impress me? To begin with there is no plot. It might be hubris to say so in a post-modern age when plot seems to be anathema, but depicting a crime in graphic detail and leaving it at that is not a plot; it is merely the basis for a plot, a leaping off point. In fact, I was most disconcerted to note that the film ends at the very moment when plot possibilities open up for an engaging crime drama, but because McLean is only interested in cheap and easy setups (a girl having her spine severed, a crucified boy and so on), he rolls the end credits and sends us home.
Second, the film lacks the atmosphere, tension and suspense that ought to keep the spine rigid throughout any half-decent thriller. Had it not been for Cassandra Magrath and Andy McPhee's charismatic performances, the first forty or so minutes would have been excruciatingly dull. And even when the trio finally reach their final destination, the director passes over, time and again, right up to the last minute, opportunities to crank up the tension with suspenseful set pieces--I am sorry to say that scenes of torture are no substitute for the kind of genuine artfully wrought suspense and tension made famous by Hitchcock and Brian De Palma. Instead, McLean opts for a grim, unflinching realism that is meant to be 'edgy' and ends up being merely a slavish copy of reality television. This is not film as art. Rather it is a celebration of juvenile media like television or computer games. It says that McLean does not fully understand the potential of the medium or the genre in which he chose to express himself.
One of the deplorable aspects about teen slasher movies is the way filmmakers choose to show victims as anonymous fodder. With very few exceptions, characters are symbols rather than real people with real lives. This lack, or absence, creates a distortion; a warped distance between filmic representation and audience; and that sense of unreality and detachment allows the audience to view an atrocity at one remove. This is not happening, they tell themselves. A real person is not being killed. The fact that the threatening agency is often alien or supernatural adds to that sense of unreality--see the excellent Pitch Black (David Twohy, 2000) or Jeepers Creepers 2 (Victor Salva, 2003), for examples. It's only when the killer is a flesh and blood human being and the victims have depth that audience identification kicks in. Wolf Creek has the former but, unfortunately, not the latter.
It doesn't matter that we know from the beginning that McLean's three teens are heading for the slaughterhouse; that's a genre convention that we must accept and work with. But we ought to, at the very least, slowly acquaint ourselves with these people and maybe even care ever so little about them. Their eventual passing ought to mean something; it ought to leave a tangible residue, if human beings are not to be reduced to cattle by a filmmaker's casual and cynical sadism. I was most intrigued to read that John Jarratt did not want to know his three co-stars during the shoot. He said he preferred to see them as 'veal', which I believe also sums up McLean's attitude.
For a fully rounded victim, witness the clever placement of details that help to build up Janet Leigh's Marion Crane in Psycho before she faces the knife in a lonely hotel room. Everything, from music and objects, to complex sound effects, goes into building up the character. When she finally slumps down in the bathtub, the camera spiralling out her eye, it is a riveting visual and emotional moment, the viewer feels like they have lost someone significant. Marion Crane's passing leaves an existentialist void in the viewer's mind as well as for the other characters in the film. This device allows the narrative to extend beyond the death of a major character, as well as pushing the boundaries of film into real life identification. The death of a human being might not mean a hill of beans in the cosmic order of things, but it means, or ought to, a great deal to the people whose lives had been connected to that individual. Wolf Creek gets flip with death in a way that intelligent genre movies do not. This is the difference between meaning and non-meaning in cinema, a moral vacuum that has been made fashionable by the likes of Quentin Tarantino--a hip director who, for the most part, pulls rabbits out of a hat for audiences that don't know where to look.
With the exception of Cassandra Macgrath, when people die in Wolf Creek, we feel nothing. We don't care. Not because we have become callously anaesthetized but because the filmmaker lacks the will or ability to soften us toward his characters. They are merely fodder for a one-dimensional predator who is content to grimace and go through predictable posturing cliches of the genre. Contrary to claims, John Jarratt's Mick Taylor will not join the list of 'truly great movie villains', as the Sunday Herald Sun asserts. He will be forgotten with the sunset. As (under)written by McLean and performed by Jarratt, Mick Taylor lacks depth, nuance and complexity. I am not content with Megan Spencer's remark that we have to accept the fact that he is a predator, and leave it at that. This is a movie, not real life. Cinema, like the novel, is about storytelling. As such, it has to offer a complete universe, whether it is in an overt or oblique manner is up to the filmmaker. Characters' actions must be drawn from and reflect the overall schema of the narrative. If it does not, then the viewer perceives a gap and is dissatisfied. Besides, even faceless killers have a history from which springs their homicidal tendency, no matter how flimsy. Witness the legendary Michael Myers in Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978), Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th (Steve Miner, 1980) and Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984). Nor am I overly impressed by Margaret Pomerantz's delighted assertion that Mick Taylor turns Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986) on his head. As character deconstructions go, it's pretty superficial and morally moribund. I know that there is consensus for this type of thing, but it is simply amoral enjoyment.
For a fascinating analysis of a killer's mind, McLean would have done well to examine the psychopaths portrayed by Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) and Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962). Driven by obscure, barely recognized imperatives, there is a demented ruthlessness in Mitchum that Jarratt simply cannot match. The best that can be said about Mick Taylor is that he is 'a hideous blank,' to borrow a phrase used by early settlement explorers when describing the outback. He is devoid of human expression except on the most superficial, self-serving level. He is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Had Jarratt managed to weave that unsettlingly blank facade with the coiled up rage and menace that made Robert Ryan's anti-Semitic killer in Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk, 1947), or even Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu's subdued gentlemanly psycho in The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988) so very memorable, Mick Taylor might have lived on in the mind. As it is, he does not pass muster, I'm afraid. Those that say otherwise don't know their movies. Nor do they recognize that murderers are only funny and exciting if one hangs onto passe genre cliches.
During his publicity junkets Greg McLean spoke at length about wanting to use the landscape 'like another character in the film'. Admirably, he wanted it to be the source from which sprang the film's sense of fear and dread. To that purpose, he studied films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock; Peter Weir's lyric visual poem being the perfect example of an Australian film that manages to elicit a sense of menace and foreboding simply by showing a black rock crouched over the lush greenery, like a chthonic beast.
After seeing Wolf Creek, one could surmise that McLean doesn't know how to apply his lessons. Lacking emotional tenor, his wide, static compositions of the red heart are flat and uninspired. They are more like bland tourist snapshots--there's that straightforward realism again--than an attempt to imbue landscape with mood and character. While watching the film, I found myself thinking that even the startling panoramas in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994) managed to convey the smallness and insignificance of mankind in the face of majestic nature more powerfully than anything in Wolf Creek. Thinking about it, I realized that what McLean's film lacks is the 'haunting presence' that needs to operate beneath the surface of the filmic image if it is to have a significant layer of meaning. This layering is present in Picnic at Hanging Rock because of the panpipes music, the unsettling electronic rumble, and so on. But it's in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), the film that Wolf Creek most resembles, that this enriching symbiosis reaches a kind of ecstatic apotheosis. Tobe Hooper's film succeeds where Wolf Creek does not because it never forgets that location always comes with its attendant auditory resonance: let's call it a marriage of landscape with soundscape. From the minute Chainsaw begins, violence shimmers in the air like a heatwave. Even as the credits roll, the surface image is an angry, boiling orange-red and effluvial brown. Running over and beneath that is the soundtrack--a symphony of death: crows calling, glass breaking, voices bickering, reports of violence on the radio, static, crickets creaking in the dry crackling grasses, cries, whispers, chimes made of human bone clattering, discordant unrelated sounds, and so on. Long before the doomed group arrive at the charnel house, the audience is already on edge and feeling under assault. Together with Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), it may well be one of the great achievements in the history of horror movies.
Ultimately, the trouble with Wolf Creek is that it is so mindless and shallow it couldn't even pass as theatre of cruelty with touches of the absurd. Its only aim seems to be to rattle those seeking the cheapest possible thrills before moving on to the next cheapest possible thrill, whatever that may be--Saw 2 (Darren Lynn Bousman, 2005) perhaps. Had Greg McLean taken greater care, his debut feature might have been a richer one, with a visual, kinetic, and emotional essence that slowly, unawares, draws in the viewer, deeper and deeper, until it's too late to turn back. As it happened, he opted for fleeting notoriety instead of longevity. I, for one, could have walked out of the auditorium at any time and wouldn't have felt that I'd missed anything significant.
With thanks to Cameron Rogers.
DMETRI KAKMI is a critic and essayist. He also works part-time as a senior editor at Penguin Books.
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|Title Annotation:||THINK AGAIN: CRITICAL RESPONSES|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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