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Wolf Creek

Year: 2005
Director: Greg McLean
Producer: Greg McLean
Writer: Greg McLean
Cast: Cassandra MacGrath, Kestie Morassi, John Jarratt, Nathan Phillips
After wowing audiences at Cannes (including prompting several of them to walk out), and scoring a theatrical release in the UK before anyone at home had even bought it (which says something about film executives like the Weinsteins and their knowing what will sell in commercial cinema while Australian buyers piss around looking for whatever was big last year and trying to copy it).

Like the best cinematic movies made in Australia about Australia, such as Razorback, it shows a more realistic side to the outback, and one we're not used to. No cuddly koalas, no warm, rich colours and smiling natives. In Wolf Creek's Australia, the outback is something even most Australians have trouble identifying with, but which is closer to the truth; terrifying, muddy, misty and brutal.

Producer/writer/director McLean amps that fear up by doing for the outback what Jaws did for the ocean; he reminds us that it's a big, empty place, and there are a lot of very nasty things to be found out there - human or otherwise.

Riffing on both the Ivan Milat and Peter Falcino/Joanne Lees cases, it depicts two English girls and a Sydney guy backpacking around the country in a typical pilgrimage, played by unknown MacGrath, Aussie Morassi playing a pitch-perfect pommy backpacker, and star-in-waiting Nathan Phillips, who might finally get the credit he deserves after wallowing in too many low rent Australian flicks.

The three act and interact as well as you've ever seen the Hollywood greats perform; the naturalistic dialogue and delivery, together with the documentary feel McLean maintains for the first third of the film, make you feel like you've come across a lost video tape, as the mythology behind Blair Witch told.

Returning to their car after climbing Wolf Creek meteor crater in remote Western Australia to find it broken down, the three resign themselves to staying the night in the carpark until a true outback character turns up, a Crocodile Dundee archetype in shape of bushman John Jarrat (whom you'll never look at the same again).

Offering to tow them back to his property and get them on the road again, Mick seems like a dream come true, and as he goes to work on their station wagon, they all sleep gratefully.

We open next close up on Liz's face, slowly pan back and realise her hands and feet are bound, a gag's around her mouth and she's been dumped in some grimy storeroom.

It's all part of the immersion, a technique that becomes the most effective aspect of the film. We wake up as Liz does, realise her predicament as she does, escape and run around in a panic trying to work out what's going on as she does.

The movie continues to succeed on many levels and for many reasons. One is the long sequences following the plight of just one or two characters, leaving us wondering where everyone else is and what's going on for long stretches. It would have been a very different movie if McLean had shown us Mick at work, then where he'd left Liz, then cut to Ben, then back again. For long periods of time, we become Liz, then we become Ben, wondering where everyone else is and what horrible fate is going to be visited upon us next.

And when they come, they are horrible. Jarratt is as chilling a movie monster as there's ever been, and if any film makes him an internationally recognised star in his long career, this will be it.

It's not a road movie drama, or a thriller. It's a horror movie, and McLean wants to make a movie as horrible as he believes horror movies should be. It's brutal, sadistic and awful to watch. Just when you think someone is going to make it out okay, or not make it, they (and Mick) surprises you in sometimes the worst way possible.

The fact that we leave Liz after what he's done to her and don't see her any more for the rest of the film is somehow worse; McLean letting us imagine what nightmarish fate awaits her in the state Mick has left her.

He claims he was inspired by Picnic at Hanging Rock, and both films deal with the uncertainties and fears of what can happen to us in what's essentially a dangerous and untamed country. But the comparisons stop there. Weir wove a graceful, beautifully-lit dreamscape. McLean throws mud and terror in our face with a grimy film stock, focusing gleefully on Liz's face as she screams in disbelief and agony, the close-in, war photographer feel drawing you uncomfortably close to the sweaty, bloody action - implicating you in it, in a way.

It's not until after you stumble out of the cinema in a daze that some of the implausibilities will hit you (if they all escape so easily, how has he got away with it so far?) but by that time, you've been hit with the cinematic equivalent of a truck, and if the movies is a visceral experience for you, you'll feel like a shower afterwards. At the very least, you might need clean underwear.

An interesting thing will be political fallout. When Jaws came out, everyone just thought it was a good movie. In the public relations agenda-heavy 21st century, when a film came out playing on more or less the same theme (Open Water), dive tour operators complained that it would damage their trade.

Will everyone from West Australian Tourism Commission to whatever community trust looks after the real Wolfe Creek (as the real one is spelled) start complaining the movie will kill off the tourism Elle MacPherson and Paul Hogan have worked so hard to build up?

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