Wolf Creek Movie Review
Greg McLean's Wolf Creek dramatizes the nightmare of tourists everywhere. Two British backpackers, Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) are driving across Australia with Aussie tagalong Ben (Nathan Phillips) for the final weeks of a grand holiday. They decide to make a sightseeing detour to a meteorite crater in the desert at Wolf Creek. After visiting the site the three find that their car mysteriously no longer starts. A driver (John Jarratt) picks them up, and with Wolf Creek being a horror film and all, you can pretty much guess what happens next.
Though stridently wearing its True Story badge from the outset, let this be clear: Wolf Creek is true only in a Law and Order "ripped from the headlines" sense. It is loosely based on the "Backpacker Murders" of convicted serial killer Ivan Milat and the more recent murder of British backpacker Peter Falconio. Similarities do abound between the film and its inspirations: surely, enough to consider revising certain old expressions. Falconio was backpacking before he and girlfriend Joanne Lees were kidnapped and Falconio murdered. Wolf Creek borrows from the mythology of the Falconio and Milat cases rather than directly staging them.
However, fiction or non-fiction, Wolf Creek is devastatingly real. This is perhaps the quality most responsible for the festival hype surrounding McLean's film. From the outset, a calm reality informs the story of these three travelers. The camera follows them with little fuss, observing requisite horror movie debauchery with an unobtrusive and nonjudgmental eye. The stock dialogue is accurate: The British characters say "balmy" and the Aussie characters say "mate." McLean the screenwriter has an ear for effective dialogue and his characters never talk outside of themselves. He also knows when to have them shut up; a speechless realization of Liz and Ben's mutual attraction is as poignant a moment as I have seen in the cinema for some time. The three young performers are completely natural in these early scenes. Phillips as Ben is marvelous as the young pretender slowly losing control of the situation, and Morassi as the third wheel in this threesome is disturbingly engaging when the knives, guns and whatnot come out.
It is at this point that the film both excels and deflates. The reality remains, tension dominates and McLean does not shy away from liberal lashings of violence. In fact, in Australia some critics have staged walkouts of screenings protesting the "sadistic" violence and demanding respect for the victims. For horror fans there are moments of brilliance; the film is tense and grisly enough to have you covering your eyes for most of its second half. John Jarratt, not known for his villains, is astonishingly good as the murderously bad Samaritan, Mick Taylor. Wolf Creek owes much of its effect to Jarratt, who gives Taylor a larrikinism and laconic sense of Australiana that never sits quite right. Watch for the threatening undertones of every word that grins and chuckles its way out of his mouth at the campfire scene, by far the film's most titillating sequence. Mick Taylor is a fabulous creation, a violent inversion of the Dundee stereotype, who even gets to use the line "that's not a knife; this is a knife" to spine-rattling effect more than once. It is enough to make one forget the words, "only in America..."
However, for all its pitch-perfect characterizations, for all its reality, for all its tension, Wolf Creek lacks the big payoff that horror films are expected to provide. The horror scenes are certainly real and traumatizing, but there are few of the "boo!" and shock moments, which, although often chided, are much of the reason we watch these films. The demise of some of the characters is realized with pathos, but a horror movie should off them with a bang. When night comes, it is far too quickly day again. The ending comes so suddenly and graces the screen so fleetingly that it almost insults the audience. But it is certainly not painful enough an insult to taint the overall film. Wolf Creek is a horror movie that concentrates too much on what other horror films lack and lacks a little something for it.
Clean the lens!