Monday, October 16, 2006

Wolf Creek (McLean, 2005)

In the opening moments of Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek, the first-time director makes a questionable decision that unfortunately colors and distracts from the rest of the film which follows. He offers the viewer an opening text which informs us that all we are about to witness is based on actual events. He also tells us that numerous people are reported missing in Australia each year, never to be heard from again. With those words, McLean makes the viewer a promise that he is unable to keep. We expect that he has selected the subject matter because he has something insightful to offer us about this particular case or perhaps missing persons cases in general. However, it eventually becomes clear that McLean’s purpose is far simpler. He really just wants to creep us out and, like so many other budding directors, display his stylistic technique through the horror genre. In this goal, McLean has much to offer. He demonstrates a knack for developing characters and creating an effective sense of dread. His three lead actors, who play characters traveling through the vast Australian countryside, demonstrate an ability to interact naturally with each other. Their dialogue seems at least partially improvised. Whether it is or not makes no difference. These characters are engaging because they have aspirations, humor and intelligence.

When a strange coincidence occurs at an old meteor crater, leaving the trio stranded, McLean seems to be hinting at cosmic significance. However, despite the potential for further thematic exploration, McLean’s excellent first hour soon gives way to a crazed killer scenario that is far more typical. It is not necessarily that the film declines dramatically in quality. It is simply disappointing to eventually discover that the film has far less in mind than we originally think. It also leads us to wonder how tasteful it is to create an action thriller out of recent tragic misfortune. John Jarratt’s performance as the malevolent outdoorsman is fun in places, but is far too obviously an actor’s construction to offer much psychological insight. Ultimately, we have are left with a film which is more competently executed than most horror films, but still has the same low aspirations: make the viewer wonder who will die and shock us with the creative, vicious way in which they meet their end.

If this is what you want from a horror movie, you should be well satisfied. However, I can’t help but think that with his opening text and an ending in which we realize that most of what we have seen is unreliable that McLean is in an uncomfortable liminal zone between fact and fiction. If the film is a thriller, why does it matter that it has basis in reality? Why must we lose track of a character for one-third of the film only to have this character reappear in an awkward clunky coda? If the film is intended to shed light on a real-life situation, how is it served by unfocused speculation which is geared obviously more towards shock and thrills than an exploration of truth? For technical merit and for its creation of dread and suspense, Wolf Creek is still worth seeing, even if McLean ultimately bites off more than he can chew.



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