If Australian movies have taught us anything it’s that Australia wants to kill you. The lucky ones will die quickly at the hands (fangs, tentacles, venom) of wildlife seemingly designed solely for your demise. For some though, the end will come slowly with obnoxious masculinity, irresponsible gun ownership, and aggressive cornholing.
Killing Ground is an at times harrowing and grim tale about the unlucky ones.
Ian (Ian Meadows) and his wife Sam (Harriet Dyer) arrive at a remote lake hoping for a relaxing weekend camping trip, but they’re mildly disappointed to see another tent set up nearby. “What if they’re dickheads?” asks Ian half jokingly, but rude neighbors is nothing compared to the ordeal heading their way. They proceed to enjoy their getaway, but as night passes without the other campers returning they begin to grow worried – a feeling that magnifies when they find a toddler wandering the trails.
We’re also introduced to a pair of locals, German (Aaron Pedersen) and Chook (Aaron Glenane), who spend their days leering at young women, drinking beer, and hunting with dogs and guns by their side.
Running parallel to it all are flashbacks revealing just what happened to the now missing family, and it’s no less suspenseful or unsettling even knowing the outcome. The couple, along with their teenage daughter and toddler son, are allowed time to grow as characters before they fall victim to the vicious brutality of German and Chook.
Writer/director Damien Power takes a chance by spending so much time with the killers on their downtime and with a family we already know is doomed, but it works beautifully to build them as characters we despise and care for, respectively. He’s aided in large part by editor Katie Flaxman who effortlessly shifts the action and time frame with neither clunkiness nor disruption.
Power takes fantastic advantage of the landscape – to be fair, Australia itself does much of the heavy lifting there – and uses it enhance the film’s numerous suspense beats. The sequence where Sam finds the child is a brilliant and haunting visual as the boy appears behind her on the trail, out of focus and without a sound cue announcing his arrival. There’s a ghostliness to his appearance portending the deaths to come.
For all that Killing Ground does extremely well, the third act sees the film stumble through a succession of character choices that lean heavily toward the cowardly, stupid, and unsatisfying. Power wisely avoids sticking our faces in the sexual assaults, but viewers will still be deservedly and understandably enraged at the perpetrators and while there’s a finality to the story there’s little satisfaction or catharsis to be found with it.
As unfortunately frustrating as the final third is, there’s still a lot here to admire. As mentioned above, the time Power spends with his characters – protagonists and antagonists – is unusual for the genre but very welcome. Small details like Sam’s proposal to Ian, the daughter’s relationship to her parents, and German and Chook’s dynamic build them all into people instead of mere thriller fodder, and the performances on both sides of the moral divide are equally compelling. It may not seem like much, but the extra attention adds depth that makes their suffering more visceral and immediate, and in one case it makes their betrayal every bit as painful to watch as the slaughter itself.
Killing Ground drops the ball when it matters most, but its numerous strengths leading up to that point are enough to elevate the film above so many of its peers. The message still comes through loud and clear – stay away from Australia.
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