Purely by coincidence publicists sent me screeners for two different Australian movies opening soon in New York that feature aboriginal main characters who say nothing throughout.
In “Red Hill”, a film laden with references to American westerns especially “High Noon”, the character in question is Jimmy Conway, a convict of aboriginal descent serving a life sentence for killing his wife. At the start of the movie he has escaped from prison after a gas main explosion opens a hole in the wall. He then returns to Red Hill, a rural town where the locals still ride horses, seeking vengeance against the cops who arrested him. Tommy Lewis, the eponymous star of the 1978 “Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith”, another saga of aboriginal rage, plays Conway.
When Conway descends upon the town, he begins killing off one cop after another leaving a trail of destruction reminiscent of the final moments of “Rambo: First Blood”. Director Patrick Hughes in this, his first feature film, is something of a pack rat picking up elements of a number of movies. Like “No Country for Old Man”, Jimmy Conway appears as wanton and indestructible as Anton Chigur. Indeed, I had to fight back urges to eject the DVD from my player out of disgust with what seemed like a throwback to the “savage Indian” narratives of John Ford and Howard Hawks. This is 2010 after all.
This is what they call a spoiler alert in the trade. I write reviews not in the conventional entertainment section fashion, but more out of an ongoing search to see how popular culture reflects broader trends in society. So read no further if you intend to see this movie in hope of a big surprise at the end.
One of the cops in Red Hill is a new hire named Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten, who plays the vampire Jason Stackhouse in HBO’s “True Blood”) who is hazed by the other cops on his first day on the job as a citified softy. They refuse to allow him to use a squad car to investigate a mysterious horse slaughter at a nearby ranch and is forced himself to ride a horse, something that the refugee from an urban job that went sour does only with some trepidation.
When he finally meets up with the baleful Jimmy Conway, who carries a shotgun and wears a bandolier of shells across his chest, his life is spared. Cooper learns later that Conway is only interested in revenge against the cops who wronged him. In a flashback, we discover that when he was a young man he learned that a railroad had plans to lay track across a sacred aboriginal burial ground. When the railroad is forced to change its plans, hence leaving the town less prosperous than the local bigwigs, including the cops, had hoped, the cops organize a vigilante squad to punish Jimmy. After beating him to unconsciousness in his house, they drag his wife outside where they rape and murder her. They then set fire to the house, from which Jimmy narrowly escapes with his life but not without a scar across one part of his face that accentuates his balefulness. They arrest him afterwards and charge him with the murder of his wife.
Unfortunately, Rotten Tomatoes only allows me to categorize movies as “fresh” or “rotten”. If I could, I would describe “Red Hill” as a combination of the two. It is fresh insofar as it attempts to indict Australian racism in terms that will be familiar to anyone who has seen “revisionist” American western films such as Abraham Polonsky’s “Tell them Willie Boy is Here”. But director/screenwriter Hughes squandered a great opportunity by making Jimmy Conway a man of so few words. At the very end of the movie, he tells Cooper that he believes the child his wife is expecting will be a boy (he discovers a book on what to name your first child in the cop’s pocket after he has knocked him out.) If I had written the screenplay, I would have devoted a good fifteen minutes or so to the aboriginal spilling out his guts to the captive cop about his grievances. But then again, my job is to review movies (unpaid of course) and not to write them.
“Red Hill” opens on November 5th in New York.
The Samson (Rowan McNamara) of “Samson and Delilah” is a teen-ager who has stopped speaking probably as a result of brain damage, a consequence of his gasoline-sniffing habit. He lives in a hardscrabble aboriginal village in the outback that will be familiar to any American who has spent time on an Indian reservation in North America. Nobody seems to have a job, including Samson whose days are spent listening to country-and-western music on an aboriginal station, ambling about aimlessly in a wheelchair that belongs to a village elder named Nana (Mitjili Gibson) or flirting with Nana’s granddaughter Delilah (Marissa Gibson)—if flirting is understood as throwing small stones at Delilah. Nana and Delilah spend their days working on native crafts to sell in the cities, again an activity that will be familiar to those who have been to the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.
One day, Samson climbs over the fence that surrounds Nana’s house unannounced (shack would probably describe it better), toting a sponge rubber mattress and his bedclothes with him. Like Samson, Nana and Delilah sleep under the stars on their own mattresses, an ostensible connection to their more primitive but noble past almost entirely destroyed by “civilization”. Nana laughs at his appearance, teasing Delilah with the observation that her husband has arrived. Delilah greets Samson by throwing his mattress back over the fence and hurling stones at him. Eventually she puts up with his presence begrudgingly since nothing seems to deter him. Given his brain damage, it is not surprising that he is in too addled a state to take the first step in a proper courtship.
Not long after Samson shows up, Nana dies in her sleep, leaving Delilah on her own. As part of a ritual that is still extant among this group of aborigines, her female elders beat her with sticks, blaming her for not giving proper attention to her granny. In fact, she doted on her grandmother, taking her to a clinic dutifully each day.
With not a word of explanation (lacking the ability to speak, none was forthcoming), Samson steals a truck, takes Delilah into the cab with him, and speeds off to a nearby-unnamed city. The two youths drift about the city until they find themselves under a bridge in the camp of a deranged but solicitous homeless aboriginal man named Gonzo who is played by Scott Thornton, director Warwick Thornton’s brother.
The most powerful scenes in the movie involve Samson and Delilah’s alienation from the affluent urban crowds who sit at sidewalk cafes enjoying a glass of wine or coffee while the two aboriginal youth try to scramble up some change for their next meal. When Delilah tries to sell one of her craft pieces to a gallery dealer, he tells her to get lost.
This is not a very happy movie but it is well worth watching for a glimpse into the social reality of Australia today. Director Warwick Thornton has said that everything in the movie is based on something he has witnessed in his life. To my knowledge, this is one of the few films that has been made by an Australian aboriginal and as such compels the attention of anyone concerned with native rights.
“Samson and Delilah” will open at Village East Cinema in Manhattan and IndieScreen in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on October 15th.