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A new thriller seeks to reconcile the Australian Gothic concept of the bush as a hostile frontier with our history of colonial dispossession and massacre, but ends up trading on familiar tropes.

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Killing Ground. Image: © John Platt Photography

While watching the new Australian horror Killing Ground, set in a New South Wales camping ground where a massacre of Indigenous people took place, I thought of the words of master filmmaker Wim Wenders on the eve of a 2015 exhibition of his landscape photographs:

I am not a landscape photographer. I am interested in people. I am interested in our civilisation. I am interested in what traces we leave in landscapes, in cities and places. But I wait until people have gone, until they are out of the shot. So the place can start talking about us. Places are so much more able to evoke people when people are out. As soon as there is one person in the shot everybody looks at that person. If there is nobody in the shot, the beholder is able to listen to the story of that place. And that’s my job. I try to make places tell their stories about us. So I am not a landscape photographer. I am really interested in people, but my way of finding out things about people is that I do photos about their absence, about their traces.

I have seen several Australian films that take seriously the traces that have been left on the landscape. Bliss by Ray Lawrence – an arthouse film about longing to leave the city for the rainforest – is one of them. Mad Max: Fury Road by George Miller – an action film in which the desert drives a story about finding new ways to work and live together in the face of authoritarianism and environmental disaster – is another. Killing Ground is not one of them.

A besotted young couple, Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows), take to the bush for New Year’s Eve. After being told by a local stranger, German (Aaron Pedersen) that their intended campsite can only be accessed by four wheel drive, they are rerouted to Gungilee Falls. It is picturesque: a sandy beach on a tranquil lake, surrounded by soft-lit bushland. In a swift line of dialogue, we’re told that the name Gungilee means ‘the weeping of water’ and that a massacre of ‘local Kooris driven over the edge [of the waterfall] at gunpoint by settlers’ happened long ago. Sam and Ian set up camp, undeterred by the presence of one other tent. As an audience we know the tent belongs to a family of four, including toddler Ollie and bored teenager Em, but it’s not until Sam and Ian’s second day at Gungilee that they realise the family’s tent has been abandoned.

In one of the film’s best shots – a long take – Sam retraces the path back toward the car, while, unbeknownst to her, Ollie stumbles into view in the background, tumbles over, and gets back up. Sam and Ian eventually find him, scratched, traumatised and dehydrated. The film is shattered in its structure, as we cut back and forth to discover the missing family’s fate, and it is at this point that German and his mate Chook (Aaron Glenane) come to dominate the narrative. They rape Em and her mother and take turns shooting a tinnie off Em’s father’s head. Chook ties Sam to a tree and casually sexually assaults her, and the final cat-and-mouse chase of male cowardice unfolds as dark settles across the canopy overhead.

There are many ways that director-writer Damien Power establishes that this isn’t just your average schlocky genre piece. With abundant shots of sinister spindly trees and a plaintive colonial fiddle cutting its way through the soundtrack, Power is aiming for a sombre, thoughtful thriller where the politics of the land are background to the narrative but dominant in theme. He was onto something. There’s a lot to be said about Australian injustice, the weird relationship we have to the land, and how that’s expressed in cinema.

There’s a lot to be said about Australian injustice, the weird relationship we have to the land, and how that’s expressed in cinema.

But every Australian thriller now follows in the wake of Wolf Creek – trading in many of the same conventions, which have morphed into cliches. Having set up the themes of Indigenous slaughter and white indifference, Power relegates them to the background and moves onto the action. What does it mean to have an entire genre in which horrendous violence takes place against the backdrop of a hostile bushland? Where rape is a plot point? How to make sense of a film in which the history of an Indigenous massacre is introduced as a crucial theme in a single line of dialogue and then left undeveloped?

Killing Ground is one of the many films based on the murderous call of the outback, bracketed under the idea of the Australian Gothic. Historian Dr Ben Wilkie describes this theme as a tradition that ‘sets human characters against the omnipresent Australian landscape; their identity and very existence is frequently defined in relation to an often foreboding, unwelcoming land that violently opposes their presence. They are out of place, and they do not belong here.’ Picnic at Hanging Rock, a tale of white dreaming in which a group of girls vanish into the mystical Victorian boulders, provides the most mythical template. Following that film’s broad thematic arc, Killing Ground aims to be a payback film about the revenge of one people on another on ancient land, and what happens when justice in settler society is not done.

But it’s not the land that drives Killing Ground. Power’s script invests little in its purported Indigenous themes, as well as the characters’ backstories and relationships to one another. The film thus takes on the broad brushstrokes of its subgenre: the bush-set horror of the bogan sociopath. We can check off many of this category’s conventions: Before arriving at Gungilee Falls, the couple sing along to pop songs on the radio in their car; they guilelessly encounter their would-be murderer; Sam receives an early scare from a barking dog; she proposes to Ian at the campsite, romantically capping the idyllic setting. All these things are intended to lay the groundwork for a particularly violent form of dramatic irony: the besotted couple have their whole lives ahead of them, but we know from the film’s promotional material that everything is about go wrong at the hands of ocker, bourbon-and-coke-swilling outback murderers who live and thrive on the fringes of society.

The film thus takes on the broad brushstrokes of its subgenre: the bush-set horror of the bogan sociopath.

Actor Aaron Pedersen described his approach to the character of German – not originally written as Indigenous – as follows: ‘I did say to Damien that it would give it more gravitas, more weight, with the knowledge that what was initially a killing ground is now a camping ground, a tourist attraction. I spoke to him about the notion that the land was sick and therefore German is infected by it.’

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Killing Ground. Image: © John Platt Photography

I have no doubt that this colour-blind casting happened because Pedersen was the best man for the role – indeed, he’s one of the best leading male actors in Australia, and he opts to play German rather subtly as a bored, agitated killer rather than a gleeful maniac. But it’s telling that the role wasn’t written as Indigenous, and that this layer of meaning wasn’t built into the film originally. Although Pedersen speaks to the idea of a toxic land creating toxic killers, that characterisation isn’t present in the rest of the film. I can’t help but think that Killing Ground leans on the concept of spiritual comeuppance for Indigenous genocide as a potent but lazy background theme with which to bolster an otherwise rote narrative and set of filmmaking choices.

[Pedersen] opts to play German rather subtly as a bored, agitated killer rather than a gleeful maniac.

The thematic crisis of colonial Australia’s erasure of Indigeneity is never brought to bear on the film’s formal operations, which repeat every single visual trope we’ve come to expect from the ‘bogan sociopath terrorises white people in the bush’ horror genre. I’m thinking of the wide shot of a hostile landscape, the flannel-clad murderer looming in a low-angle shot, the helpless bodies of victims strewn about on the ground in a wide shot with an indifferent canopy of leaves above. We see the same types of shots of the trees and leaves – stripped of their golden halos to a monochromatic palette of silvery murk-green – and the scrub and the water, and people and cars positioned around and within these things. Cinematographer Simon Chapman thoughtfully composes his shots with a strong vertical dynamic following the lines of the narrow gums, but they are angles and compositions we have seen before. Do these tired visual storytelling choices really serve a critique of colonialism? Do they really advance a new cinematic approach to the land, in which it’s not an enemy?

I suspect Killing Ground wants to hedge its bets by functioning for two audiences: first, the bloodthirsty horror buff, for whom brutality is a measure of excellence, and whose craving for violence escalates from each film to the next (indeed, there’s little poetry to the monstrosity, unlike The Babadook); and the second, the more thoughtful arthouse audience, who can stomach violence when it is modulated and purposeful. I think there’s a good chance that most of both of these audiences are urban, middle-class, foreign to and fearful of the many different types of Australian bushland.

Killing Ground wants to hedge its bets by functioning for two audiences: the bloodthirsty horror buff [and] the more thoughtful arthouse audience.

But I don’t think Power can have it both ways. Any deeper political aspirations are undone by the frame of reference he encourages audiences to look through: the worn commercial genre of bogan sociopaths stabbing their way through the malevolent bush. A genre’s devices can, of course, be turned against it, self-reflexively hijacking familiar conventions and proposing a new critique and renovation of a filmmaking style, but Killing Ground doesn’t do that. It is as though the film wants to critique this history of Indigenous massacre, only to reinforce it with visual storytelling cues that echo the work of myriad white filmmakers in imagining the bush as an evil presence. Why retell the same story?

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Killing Ground. Image: © John Platt Photography

Killing Ground’s bush landscape is a generic backdrop, interchangeable with any other Australian landscape: it could be the outback of Wolf Creek, the Hunter Valley of Tomorrow, When The War Began, desert shrubland, an evergreen rainforest in the gullies of the Megalong Valley, or marshland, or a tropical forest, or subtropical grassland. The characters run around the trees, but they don’t genuinely interact with the bush surrounding Gungilee Falls – we never even see the waterfalls themselves. Can you imagine Wake in Fright were it not set in Broken Hill, or Picnic at Hanging Rock without its Victorian geological formation? Twelve Canoes by Rolf de Heer, Samson & Delilah by Warwick Thornton and Tanna by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean also found different ways of seeing the land and its inherited traumas. All these films belong to their landscape, as do we.

In most popular cinema, story drives the action, but in richer, more powerful modes of filmmaking, places are the cinematic engine. ‘They get little attention, as a subject,’ Wim Wenders said in 2003, ‘as they are usually just taken for granted, because they’re mostly “just there.” In cinematic terms, places are mostly identified as “scenery”, “locations” or “background.” They are certainly considered the most passive element.’ Wenders approaches his films like Paris, Texas not as ways to tell a story, but ways to tell a place, describing The Wings of Desire as ‘a historic document of a place that has vanished.’ It’s an essentially different and radical way of thinking about cinema and its possibilities.

There are moments of Australian history, predating colonisation, that we must hold on to. There is a need for film to speak to the attempted erasure of Indigenous society – to record the changes, to memorialise what was lost, to honour the land and suggest the ways that we can change our relationship with it progressively. And there cannot be only two modes – idyllic and evil – in which to portray the Australian landscape in its many ecologies.

Can’t there be another narrative?

Killing Ground is now screening in selected cinemas.