Let’s face it: as much as many of us love westerns, a lot of the newer entries to the long-lasting and stalwart genre have a nasty habit of not measuring up to our expectations. They can’t all be like the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, now can they? Usually, the modern western formula attempts to capture the very essence of a filmmaker like Sergio Leone or John Ford, but their lackluster ability to convey a story to an audience usually results in a forgettable tale akin to the earliest of John Wayne b-westerns that played at the bijou during the Saturday Matinee.
Ah, but what of the contemporary western; a movie that has not only been produced in modern times but is also set is such? The concept is nothing new — modern-day cowboys have been in play as far back as film itself — and such submissions to the western subgenre generally receive their fair share of acclaim from both critics and audiences alike for their simultaneous straightforwardness and ingenuity. And then there’s Australia’s 2010 entry to the field of contemporary westerns, Red Hill: a movie that pretty much drifted onto the shelves of video stores without so much as a dusty ol’ tumbleweed following it.
It’s a pity, too, because, in all honesty, Red Hill is the best contemporary western I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a long time. Much like it’s predecessors in the pasture, Red Hill carries with it a pretty simplistic storyline, but the execution the first-time feature-length writer/director Patrick Hughes employs here was enough to have me grinning with delight.
Our story focuses on Constable Shane Cooper (played by Ryan Kwanten, an Aussie actor that stars in some show called True Blood), a shell-shocked copper from the big city who has transferred to the quiet, near-dead town of Red Hill so that he and his pregnant wife may recover the traumas the stressful lives they once led and start anew. Well, turns out Shane couldn’t have picked a worse day to start working: a convicted murderer named Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis) broke out of a maximum security prison earlier that morning — and is heading to Red Hill to settle a score with the locals.
It isn’t long before Jimmy slips between Shane’s less-than-formidable one-man blockade and starts wreaking havoc upon local business owners and the police department, specifically “Old Bill” (Steve Bisley), the lead inspector of the outfit. But, as the night rolls on, a storm rages in, and former tracker Jimmy manages to run down his victims, young Shane begins to smell a bit of conspiracy in the motives behind this dangerous, hell-bent criminal.
As I said before, Red Hill is a bit on the plain-side when it comes to its story. Well, for a hardened long-time movie buff like myself, at least; the story will no doubt seem fresh to many younger viewers. But between Hughes’ often-epic visualization and the appropriate sense of dark humor and the wonderful performances that accompany the film that really sold me. Ryan Kwanten does a spectacular job as the new guy having the bad day from hell, while Tom E. Lewis is positively terrifying as the disfigured and silent menace that rides into town with murder on his mind.
To sum it up, Red Hill is a mini-masterpiece: a film that is sure to find a cult following in the future — even from non-True Blood groupies. Sadly, it would appear that its U.S. distributors had little to no faith in it. When released theatrically in late 2010, the movie went unnoticed by the patrons of all five cinemas it played in. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment also must not have had a whole lot of confidence in Red Hill, seeing that the utterly kick-ass flick has received a barebones release without any fanfare or even special features (all we get with this home video release is a large dose of trailers and promos).
Sony’s DVD presents the movie in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The video aspects aren’t as top of the line as they would probably be had this have been a major theatrical (not to mention domestic) release, but are very good overall. Sound-wise, Red Hill sports a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack that, while effective, gives very little to do for your rear speakers. Optional subtitles are included in English (SDH) and Spanish.
While it’s disappointing that Red Hill didn’t get a better theatrical release (you might have actually made some money on this one, fellas!), I’m absolutely ecstatic that this surefire sleeper hit has made its way to the US home video market at all (generally, Australian films this good have to wait until their inevitable dreary American remakes in order to get noticed!).
If you’re even a far-flung fan of westerns (and don’t mind a bit of blood and gore!), you pretty much owe it to yourself to see Red Hill.