Film and drama

Screen Themes: The Rover vs Ghosts… of the Civil Dead

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Entertainment editor John Turnbull looks at two Australian films charting the dark side of the human condition and asks: why do Australian directors do nasty so well?

THE GENRE of Australian Landscape Horror really kicked off in 1971 with the harrowing Wake in Fright, to simmer gently during the seventies, ending with the seminal Mad Max in 1979.

The eighties brought video nasties like Turkey Shoot and Road Games, while the nineties examined an urban wasteland in Romper Stomper and Metal Skin.

The new millennium brought us Wolf Creek in 2005 and, last year, These Final Hours — movies that hold up a dark mirror to modern Australian society.

Held together by the quintessentially Australian glue that is David Field, new film The Rover and late '80s movie Ghosts… of the Civil Dead are both fine examples of dark Australian cinema

Let's take a look.

Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988) — directed by John Hillcoat

Co-written by musician Nick Cave (who also plays a small but pivotal role as psychopath Maynard), Ghosts… of the Civil Dead charts the events building up to a riot in a maximum security prison somewhere in the Australian outback.

Starring a young David Field and a cast of familiar looking character actors, the film reflects a bleak view of prison life, where drugs, beatings and corruption are commonplace.

Told from multiple viewpoints including prisoners, guards and investigators, the film is light on plot but heavy on mood. The dark, oppressive cells of solitary confinement house men who have lost all hope, locked up for crimes they can no longer remember. General population is an open battleground where the guards turn a blind eye to every manner of cruelty, and drugs, violence and sex, provide a brief distraction from the horrors of everyday life.

Field plays Wenzil, a comparatively innocent man surrounded by the worst of humanity.

While not necessarily a sympathetic protagonist, as he brings on most of the bad things that happen to him, Field presents an everyman trapped in a nightmarish situation completely outside his control. His dehumanization at the hands of the system reflect the problems fundamental to our system of justice — if you lock a man up with criminals and nothing but free time, the only thing you’re going to make is tougher criminals…

A spiritual precursor to prison dramas such as Oz and Animal Factory, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead is far from a fun movie to watch, but it’s worth the effort if you can find it.

The Rover (2014) — directed by David Michod

Coming off the success of Animal Kingdom, director David Michod turned his attention to the Australian outback — a setting so powerful that it takes on a character of its own.

Set ten years after ‘the collapse’, which seems to be some kind of uber-GFC, The Rover charts the vengeful path of a man who has his most precious possession stolen. 

Guy Pearce plays the titular Rover — dour to the point of being mute for most of the film.

His co-star is best known for playing a sparkly vampire with limited range, but Robert Pattinson is surprisingly good as the simpleton brother of the man who made the poor decision to piss off a man of the Rover’s resolve.

The brother in question is played by Scoot McNairy, who you might remember as the slightly weird bloke from Argo who spoke Farsi when the plot demanded it. His partner and erstwhile leader of their small band or thugs is a profane man called Archie, played by an exceptionally grubby David Field.

These men flee from the Rover across a desolate outback, stopping now and again at properties to buy or steal whatever they can to survive.

The Rover paints a bleak picture of humanity, with the few good people far outnumbered by armed thugs and bitter opportunists. Guy Pearce gives another exceptional performance, proving himself once again as an Australian actor always worth watching.

Criminally underseen at the cinema, The Rover is a movie that will play well on DVD. Highly recommended.

The Verdict

Why do Australian directors do nasty cinema so well?

It may be a reaction to the shiny, happy image of the country portrayed in advertising or on soap operas. It may be the inherently deadly nature of the country we live in.

Directors like John Hillcoat, David Michod and Greg McLean have the ability to tap into the dark side of the human condition and reveal something familiar, yet terrifying. Their films may not make $20 million at the box office, but they continue to tell interesting and challenging stories that deserve to be seen.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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