A slow burn of a revisionist western, writer-director Rolf de Heer's spare, leisurely revenge drama has the brutally existential tone of certain lean, mean Italian westerns that were overshadowed in their own time by the operatic grandeur of films like THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966). So stripped down the characters don't even have names, just functions, it begins in medias res. 1922, Australia: The aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) leads a posse of three white men, the fanatic (Gary Sweet), the follower (Damon Gareau) and the veteran (Grant Page), into the Outback. Their quarry: A black fugitive (Noel Wilton) accused of murdering a white woman. As the group presses deeper into the scrubby, sun-baked wilderness, the fanatic terrorizes and murders an inoffensive group of aboriginal men and women, forcing the follower and the veteran to admit that their commanding officer is a sociopath. But they're also trapped: If they abandon the manhunt and manage to make it back to civilization, they'll face criminal charges; if they stay, they face a trip straight into the heart of darkness. The relationship between the fanatic and the enigmatic tracker, who obsequiously defers to his boss while joking slyly at his expense, dominates the story. Convinced that aboriginal people are inferior to whites, the fanatic belittles the tracker and puts him in chains, yet speaks his tracker's language and deeply respects his wilderness skills. A long, eloquent speech that pivots on the notion of the white man's burden eventually exposes the extent of the fanatic's capacity for self-deception. De Heer probes a series of uncomfortable issues, including the racial theories that produced Australia's "stolen generation" (the subject of 2002's RABBIT-PROOF FENCE) and gives David Gulpilil, who made his debut in 1971's WALKABOUT, the strongest, most complex role of his career. But what many viewers will remember most strongly are the jarring devices with which de Heer undermines his film's overall sense of bleak reality. He represents the violent sequences through artist Peter Coad's primitive paintings and uses story songs performed by aboriginal musician Archie Roach to reiterate and comment on the action. De Heer's apparent intent is irreproachable depicting violence without exploiting its lurid allure and using Roach's voice as an articulate counterpart to Gulpilil's near-silence but the result is annoying. Still, the film's bleakly inevitable ending packs a wallop and its hauntingly desolate images linger long after the story is told.
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- Released: 2003
- Rating: NR
- Review: A slow burn of a revisionist western, writer-director Rolf de Heer's spare, leisurely revenge drama has the brutally existential tone of certain lean, mean Italian westerns that were overshadowed in their own time by the operatic grandeur of films like THE… (more)