| The Red Right Hand
Late 19th Century Australia, the end of the bushranger era. The British colonies are under pressure the world over, these are the last years of the Empire. What was once a new world, luring people in since the gold rush of 1850, Australia is now nothing more than a baron desert, a prison for the nation's most despised offenders - namely the Irish. Local aborigines are recruited to serve Her Majesty's police force, in a desperate attempt to keep the peace and maintain order. Gangs quickly form and word gets back to England of extreme heats followed by sheets of continuous rain, atrocious crimes committed by villains the likes of which the UK has never seen and territorial ape-like men roaming the desert plains, raping and killing indiscriminately. Yet with all the problems in this land down under there are those still determined to bring about order and propriety. The two examples given in this film are perfect illustrations of nineteenth Century colonials; Eden Fletcher [Wenham] (whose position is never made clear but he holds major swing over the local constables, so we can assume he is a magistrate of sorts) is the stereotypical heartless member of the upper-class, while Cpt. Stanley [Winstone] and his wife, Martha [Watson] attempt to bring a piece of their homeland to the harsh environment they have found themselves in. I do hope I'm not making a bad name for myself in Australia. To date I have reviewed three films based in Australia and I have made it out to be a wasteland - this is just the impression I have been getting from film media - sorry.
Anyone who knows of Nick Cave's work (both music and literature) will know what to expect from this film. To give you an idea, last May I went to Egypt with a friend. As we sailed up the Nile (the Nile flows up, don't start with me on that one) we had plenty of time to read in the sweltering heat. For those of you that don't know, I'm really not a fan of hot weather, in fact I hate it. Point being, one of the books I brought with me was Nick Cave's 'And The Ass Saw The Angel.' The words, dark, bleak and desolate instantly come to mind; worded in such a manner that allowed me to forget the cooker oven I was visiting. Secondly, if it's ever crossed your mind (you are forgiven if it hasn't), one of the sources for my pseudonym, The Red Right Hand, is a Nick Cave song. Cave also provides the musical score for this film, with Warren Ellis, which compliments the stark imagery with such beauty, mixing contemporary sounds with germane instruments and tones.
Although the pace of this film could be considered slow, the story kicks off almost instantly. The movie opens to a discreet disclaimer warning that this film contains photographs of men who are now deceased. These images seem to bare no relevance on the film, except that the people pictured are from the appropriate era. As the opening credits continued I noticed Ray Winstone, it then occurred to me that even though the first few pictures were of the period, a lot were modified photographs of the cast - this may sound like a minor detail but this film is so steeped in realism that it simply confirmed any doubts you had about the look or feel of the small town of Banyon. As the last name fades to black, bullets rip through the walls of a small metal shack. The dirty, greasy-haired men inside return fire with their pistols, occasionally backfiring in their hands. A young man with long parted hair takes a bullet to his left arm, spins and falls to the ground crying. The conflict is over fairly quickly, the camera pans the corpses (Noah Taylor cameo) slumped to one side of the shanty and we see a large bearded man seated at a table in front of the two survivors; Charlie [Pearce] and Mikey [Richard Wilson] Burns. The man at the table is Captain Stanley - a colonial policeman stationed in Banyon; one of the only towns for miles - who has a proposition for Charlie. Charlie was born one of three, elder to Mikey and younger brother of Arthur [Huston]. Unlike his two younger brothers, Arthur is a vicious criminal, described by the locals as a beast. Arthur's latest despicable act was to raid the Hopkins residence, rape and murder those within before burning the site to the ground. Stanley wants Charlie to find and kill/return his brother Arthur in 9 days (Christmas Day) or Mikey will be hung.
Using long, drawn out scenes with very little happening, Hillcoat manages to move the story along superbly. If I had to compare it to anything I would say it very much resembles the work of Sergio Leone; slow methodical movements, inter-cut with short bursts of extreme and sporadic violence. Everything is dirty, the building floors, the clothes; the faces, teeth and nails, all rotting. I swear, I have never seen so many flies in one film in all my life, the constant hum of winged insects begins to really grate - especially since it was unintentional - giving a true sense of the outback. There is a sense of futility spread throughout this film, with Stanley's quest to bring order to Australia. Similar to trying to stay clean in an environment covered in dirt and dust - do you immerse yourself in the muck or rise above it and make something of yourself? It's a notion that interplays throughout; are we the sum of our parts and settings or can we improve the situations we are stuck with? Are the structural elements greater than our will to better ourselves? Most of these questions remain somewhat unanswered, probably because Cave's script focuses more on loyalty and betrayal. When Charlie finally meets up with his brother we prepare ourselves for a madman, soulless and without mind. As with most killers he is the exact opposite, intelligent, learned and eerily pleasant. He has been living in the caves with three others, surrounded by books and rudimentary furniture.
Back in the town of Banyon, Stanley's deal with Charlie is leaked out by his drunken sergeant. The town turns on him and his wife for siding with criminals and Fletcher announces that Mikey is to be flogged, 100 lashes; against Stanley's desperate attempts to prevent it. Reaching forty Mikey has already passed out, the whip slaps the blood-drenched flesh and people begin to leave. Later Martha is coming to terms with what she has seen and the consequences that Stanley was mentioning earlier. She seems distant, refusing to eat, realising that Mikey wasn't the criminal he'd been made out to be, that what happened to her friend (Mrs. Hopkins) was atrocious but did she simply act out of frustration as Stanley had tried to keep the details of her death hidden from his wife? Captain Stanley is a good man, who knows what he has to do to get his job done, to keep the peace. Unfortunately for him Fletcher holds more power than he and his actions condemn the members of the force as word gets to Charlie and Arthur that Mikey is as good as dead. In the end, unsure of who is responsible for Mikey's suffering, Charlie witnesses his brother's criminal mind in full swing and is left with a choice; torn between family loyalties and justice. As the saying goes and remains, never give an Irishman cause for revenge.
10th March 2006
The Scene To Look Out For:
Charlie comes to and walks to a ledge where Arthur is seated. Gun-in-hand Charlie sits next to his brother and they talk, casually, as brother's do. Everything happens in Pearce's eyes; do I kill him now? should I bring him back alive? should I tell him? All reeling out as Arthur asks innocent questions. Hillcoat + Cave = Genius.
Winstone as Captain Stanley, a man who knows how to govern and control the outback, with no greater wish than to make the environment he is in safe for his wife. A multi-layered character portrayed masterfully by Winstone.
"I was, in days gone by, a believer. But alas, I came to this beleaguered land and the God in me just... evaporated. Let us charge our toast, sir. To the God who has forgotten us"
In A Few Words:
"Skillful storytelling married perfectly with gripping atmosphere, providing an impeccable analysis of human nature"