Killing Ground, the debut film from writer/director Damien Power, is a horrific Rube Goldberg machine, a complicated series of chance encounters and violent clashes that builds up to a searing, blood-soaked finale. In that way, the destination won’t be much of a surprise – given the “perfect young couple head into the outback” setup, it’s not a question of if things are going to go wrong but when – and yet the way Power spins his cogs into motion is sickly thrilling.
To that end, Killing Ground is one of the most successful genre films to be made in this country since Wolf Creek 2. It’s a work of vicious intelligence anchored by a collection of startlingly well-drawn characters, and Power takes the time to carefully establish place and tone before rushing into the bloodshed.
Even his villains are treated fairly – the barbaric German (Aaron Pederson in a stand-out performance) and Chook (Aaron Glenane) are given as much as time to develop and grow as Power’s heroes, and though the pair of hunters eventually commit acts that can simply be described as unspeakable, there is a surprising amount to like about them before that first drop of blood is spilt.
And on that, actually: the blood. Though Killing Ground is structured around a horrific, central act of cruelty, it never lingers on the gore, and much of the barbarity is implied. Whenever the option is there for Power to go low, he goes high, and the film is defined by a callous yet detached style akin to the work of Catherine Breillat or Claire Denis.
Not that Killing Ground isn’t disturbing, because it is: decidedly so. One act of aggression directed towards a child prompted gasps from the audience at the screening this critic attended, and the film’s final 20 minutes see a sudden uptick in both the body count and the generally oppressive sense of intensity.
But despite all that, what lingers in one’s mind after the credits have grimly rolled is not the death contained within but the life. Power is, above all else, a humanitarian, and though he is unafraid of exploring barbarity, he obviously believes in people, and people’s ability to do good.
In that way, he is a rare, important filmmaker: an optimist still aware of life’s inherent viciousness, and a striking new Australian creative voice. All should impatiently await what he does next.