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Wolf Creek (2005)

Wolf Creek emphasizes the harshly unforgiving elements of the Australia outback as a prelude to the physical and psychological terror to ultimately be experienced by it’s ordinary protagonists, three easygoing twenty-somethings who set out on a road trip across the uncivilized desolation. Eerie compositions posit the small gang and their bought-for-cheap car against the vastness of the environment, and we sense that, should the forces of nature decide to turn against them, they wouldn’t stand a chance. Employing burnt-out color hues and an uneasy focus on natural imagery, Wolf Creek tilts its perception of the outback so that even the most typical of landscapes seem positively alien in nature. In a way, Wolf Creek stands as a companion piece with the less effective Open Water; both films concern small groups of people who are subject to terror and death when their accepted social safety nettings suddenly fall away. Whereas the doomed couple in 2003’s indie hit were at the mercy of the forces of nature (in the form of sharks), the trio of Wolf Creek are instead subjected to pure human evil in one of it’s most horrific cinematic realizations.

Roughly divided into two acts, Wolf Creek spends the first half finely establishing characters and relationships while the gritty textures of it’s murky high-definition cinematography slowly wear away the nerves of the viewer. The acting here is so good you won’t even see it (often leading to people mistaking it for bad acting), the rough-and-tumble realism of it all instilling the difficult-to-achieve notion that these are genuine people. These three souls, Liz (Cassandra Magrath), Kristy (Ketie Morassi) and Ben (Nathan Phillips) set out on their road trip through the outback where, as early title cards inform us rather blandly, thousands of people are reported missing every year. Following these individuals in their brief travels allows us to see their personas by means of their simple interactions, making it all the more devastating when the safety of their lives is unexpectedly shattered.

Once the trio reaches the titular location (a giant meteorite crater in the outback), all plans and even semblances of sanity begin their downward spiral. After their car mysteriously stops working, help offered by a local is all but impossible to refuse. Rough around the edges but seemingly friendly enough, Mick (John Jarratt) tows the trio to his camp, an abandoned mining area in the outback. A nighttime conversation around a campfire is deeply unsettling, but even the stranger aspects of Mick’s attitude don’t ring the proper warning bells for the victims-to-be. When morning comes, they’ve all been bound, gagged, and separated; neither they nor the audience knows how, making their newfound situation all the more surprising and horrific.

What follows is a harrowing witness to the evil capabilities of a completely amoral being: Mick may as well be a fellow animal of the outback, impartial to any sense of reasoning or human emotion. Unlike trademark horror villains Jason and Freddy Kreuger, Mick is able to pass off as a normal human being, thus heightening his capabilities as a human Venus flytrap. The terror meted out on Liz, Kristy and Ben is like the most viscous game of cat and mouse ever played, both physically excruciating and psychologically tormenting (with the twist of a knife, the film contains perhaps the single most disturbing moment in any film from at least the past five years). Like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before it, the acts carried out on the innocent are savage, unforgiving, and often the result of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That anyone survives in either film hardly allows for a happy ending; when all is said and done, Wolf Creek’s conclusion feels like little more than an afterthought.

The violence in Wolf Creek isn’t nearly as extreme as many have made it out to be, but the absolute realism of its context, both in presentation as well as the tangibility of the characters it is bestowed upon, makes it all the more forceful. Some, such as Roger Ebert, have suggested that it exceeds the acceptable level of seriously depicted violence in film, although these criticisms are within the context that bearing witness to such violence is meant to be entertaining. Such is hardly the case with such a primal slab of terror, testament to the evil that exists in the world, although not everyone is going to see it that way. Some sick audiences even get kicks from this sort of graphic torture (one woman at the screening I attended complained about the lack of deaths – within the first fifteen minutes), a fact that only reinforces the misanthropy that always rests just below the surface of my generally cynical mind.

Where such gleeful indulgence in death the attitude of this film, I’d readily join Ebert’s ranks, but even while portraying the events at hand, Wolf Creek never loses it’s deeply humane sympathy for the victims, despite baseless accusations of misogynistic overtones. In a post-9/11 society, it’s reassuring to see a horror film genuinely grappling with the violence and evil that so surely exists in our world (and always has – Americans were just better sheltered until recently), refusing to tone down the events experienced by it’s characters for the sake of a potentially squeamish audience. Anyone who finds this entertaining is surely desensitized, and should seek professional help (if they aren’t already beyond it), but for those who can stomach the visceral terror unleashed upon these three individuals, Wolf Creek is deeply unsettling in a profoundly existential manner.