From Australia, this dark and edgy thriller is skilfully made by writer-director Damien Power to drag the audience right into the middle of the horror. It may be a bit simplistic thematically, with an ultimate message that's feels almost bullying, but while it lasts it's a properly intense freak-out, merging two timelines to keep us chilled to the bone.
It's set in a dense forest somewhere in the Outback, where Ian and Sam (Ian Meadows and Harriet Dyer) have gone for a weekend camping trip to celebrate Ian's new job as a doctor. Pitching their tent alongside a picturesque lake, they notice a campsite at the other end of the shoreline that seems to be eerily empty. Meanwhile, we watch the residents of that other tent earlier in the day: Rob and Margaret (Julian Garner and Maya Stange) with a cheeky young toddler and sullen teen daughter Em (Tiarnie Coupland). Each of these groups of campers has an encounter with two local thugs, German and Chook (Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Glenane), who are in the area hunting wild pigs and are just a bit trigger-happy.
Filmmaker Power crosscuts between these two timelines in clever ways that keep the tension high while quietly filling in details to make the overall story come into focus. This allows him to gently build the suspense, deepening the characters just enough so that we care what happens to them, and adding some complexities that make everyone easy to identify with. Even the aggressors aren't as simplistic as they could have been. Pedersen makes German intriguingly reticent, annoyed by Chook's sadistic tendencies but aware that he has the same urges. Oddly, the dynamic between Ian and Sam is a bit more troubling, as the script simplistically ridicules Ian's innate fear without trying to understand it.
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Still, every rock movie good or bad needs a young kid with good looks and ambition, which here takes the form of Freddy (Kick Gurry), a sandy-haired singer with a vendetta against gambling machines and tendency to lose to his girlfriend's vibrator in the sexual sweepstakes. Worse, the girlfriend happens to be Tanya (Pia Miranda), the bassist in his go-nowhere Sydney band, which is filled with neurotic lead guitarist Joe (Brett Stiller) and drummer Lucy (Chris Sadrinna), an amateur pharmacist whose concoctions tend to produce more vomit than highs. Add to this Bruno (Russell Dykstra), a manager with no schmoozing skills to speak of, and Proyas winds up having great fun bouncing his characters against one another, revealing both their ineptitude and their charms.
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The problem is, Coles is now living with the devoted Claire (Petra Wright) - who proves both her love for Coles as well as her great cinematic taste in one fell swoop by getting her beau a box set of Claire Denis films for their anniversary. Her introduction, in a refreshing twist, allows writer/director Chick to deviate from his heretofore typical romantic comedy setup. Rather than cast Claire as the icy bitch Coles has, in the wake of losing Sam, been forced to settle for, Chick wisely pulls the rug out from under us, portraying Claire as almost frighteningly ideal. After Coles and Claire get together with Sam (who has shunned an engagement proposal in London and recently returned home) and Thea (who is now married to a restaurant owner) for dinner, Claire confronts Coles about the possibility that he might still harbor feelings for his one-time love; the forthrightness, respect, and clear-headed compassion and understanding she conveys while openly discussing the issue with Coles is, in its sincerity and equanimity, shocking. With Coles once again feeling magnetically drawn to Sam, Claire's goodness is the film's most delightful surprise, and winds up complicating what initially seemed to be a rote tale of lost love rediscovered.
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'Smalls Change (Meditations Upon Ageing)' arrives in April.
The two awards have made for a great 72nd birthday present for the country music icon.