Almost forgotten in its country of origin by everyone not named Quentin Tarantino, the Western remains one of Hollywood’s more significant cultural exports. In mid-century Japan, Kurosawa absorbed the generic motifs and infused them into his country’s own mythic samurai past. Sergio Leone literally seized on this same idea when he rebelled against the mod styles dominating 1960s Italian film and reverted Kurosawa’s samurai into a laconic cowboy, with the craggy landscape and jaded cynicism of Europe standing in for the dust-filled desert and idealism of the American West respectively. Australia seems to have put in a claim as the genre’s most recent stop for reinterpretation. John Hillcoat’s The Proposition created a legendary 19th-century outlaw to rival Jesse James, whose own most recent (and, by many accounts, best) celluloid incarnation arrived courtesy of Aussie filmmaker Andrew Dominik in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Given Australia’s barren topography, history of conflicts with indigenous populations, and culture of rugged individuals, Australia seems as good a place as any to breathe new life into an American castaway.
Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill begins with the oldest cliché in the Western handbook: there’s a new sheriff in town, Constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten). Cooper’s first day in the titular town gets off to a rocky start when he cannot find his firearm. His superior, Old Bill (Steve Bisley), is a tough-talking sort who does not take kindly to outsiders, especially those who cannot handle a weapon. Old Bill puts aside his distaste for Cooper, however, when he receives news that Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis), the town’s most notorious criminal, has escaped from prison and is presumably headed back for revenge. Old Bill rounds up a posse, but as the scarred Conway begins his murderous rampage, things don’t seem to add up for Cooper. Why would a bloodthirsty killer spare his life on multiple occasions? Why won’t Old Bill call for backup from the authorities in the next town? As the mystery unfolds, Cooper realizes both the town and his first day on the job are not part of the idyllic life he imagined.
Although its contemporary setting would technically classify it as neo-Western, Hughes’ film loosely traces out a history of American classics. The film is structured along the lines of both High Noon and Rio Bravo, with the sheriff and his men fortifying their town against the approaching criminal element. Shane Cooper derives his name from both the title character of Shane and Gary Cooper, star of numerous Westerns including High Noon. His moral struggle with firing a gun reflects back to both Amy Kane in High Noon and Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The town’s shameful secret recalls Clint Eastwood’s revisionist High Plains Drifter, and the character of Old Bill alludes to the tyrannical sheriff Little Bill from Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
Having clearly done his homework, Hughes evokes the simplicity of these classics as well. Shot against the stark wilderness around a one-street town, the film unfolds as a story of survival against both man and nature. Much like his namesakes, Cooper is a straight-shooting idealist. He stands apart from the mob, whether in believing an old coot’s tale of a panther running loose in the back country or questioning Old Bill’s authority in calling for reinforcements. Hughes breaks with the more odious part of tradition, however, by reconfiguring the “Indian” into a sympathetic killer rather than a clash of cultures villain. In doing so, he takes a critical stance in calling attention to a historical similarity between Australia and the Old West. That he manages to do so without any real preaching or grandstanding deserves credit, but it ultimately prevents him from making a more salient social point.