An Australian thriller that's never quite as clever or original as it seems to think, Red Hill can be admired nonetheless for the economy and self-assured quality of the filmmaking.
The first feature of writer-director Patrick Hughes, Red Hill stars Ryan Kwanten, who plays goofy hunk Ryan Stackhouse of TV's True Blood. Here he plays Shane Cooper, a new deputy in a tiny Australian town. A former city cop, he tells his new boss that he decided to move to the remote little burg to ensure that his wife's pregnancy goes to completion, far from the stresses of an Australian metropolis that caused a previous miscarriage.
His first day turns out to be an eventful one. Shane arrives at work without his gun (because it's still packed in one of the boxes that litter his house), much to the chagrin of his boss. Plus there's a huge storm brewing that looks kind of biblical. And, oh yeah, a notorious convict -- a native of this same little town -- has escaped from prison and everyone assumes he's headed home.
A couple of other elements figure into this math equation of a movie: Shane left his last job under a cloud when he couldn't bring himself to shoot a young malefactor, who then shot Shane. And the escaped convict is an Aborigine who scares the crap out of everyone.
So you've got several things swirling around in the mix, which kicks into gear when the sheriff sends his deputies and well-armed townsfolk to cordon off all entrances to the town and shoot the escaped convict on sight. Shane is detailed to a remote mountain road -- and, of course, that's where the convict pops up. He easily gets past Shane and begins knocking off lawmen and vigilantes like a kid who's played the same video game so many times that he knows exactly where everyone will be when.
As moody and atmospheric as Hughes makes the film, there's not a lot of tension to be had. You get a sense early on where this thing is headed and that's pretty much where it goes. While the bad guys are appropriately vicious -- and the convict resourceful enough to be interesting -- the real focus most of the time is on Kwanten's Shane. And he's kind of a wimp, a goody-good who grows a spine exactly when you expect him to. Which, again, doesn't do much for the tension of the thing.
Which means that Red Hill is outstanding as an exercise in building a thriller from a formula -- but as a movie, it's decidedly unthrilling.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine