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Dustin Putman

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Learn more about this film on IMDb!Wolf Creek  (2005)
3 Stars
Directed by Greg McLean
Cast: Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips, John Jarratt, Andy McPhee, Aaron Sterns, Peter Alchin
2005 – 99 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong graphic violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 20, 2005.
Written and directed by Greg McLean, "Wolf Creek" shares certain similarities with 2005's best horror film, "High Tension." For American audiences, both are low-budget foreign imports—"High Tension" was from France, "Wolf Creek" is Australian—picked up by major studios and given wide theatrical releases. For much of their running times, both pit two intelligent, traumatized young women against a human antagonist who dresses, looks and basically acts like everyone else. That he is also an insane psychopath who gets off on the gruesome slaughter of innocent strangers is a significant characteristic where each picture excels.

"High Tension" ultimately revealed itself to have far more than this up its sleeve, presenting a devastating tale that was as much about unrequited "forbidden" love as it was a yarn strictly of blood and guts. If "Wolf Creek" lacks the sociological undercurrents of "High Tension" and, thus, isn't quite on the same level, it makes no matter. After the recent suffrage through Hollywood's PG-13 kiddie-horror onslaught and often unnecessary and inferior fad toward remakes, the gritty, starkly uncompromising "Wolf Creek" comes as a breath of fresh air—or, a breath of freshly coughed-up blood.

The premise is simple, never bogging down in extraneous subplots and played-out climactic twists. Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) are British confidantes nearing the end of their two-week backpacking tour across Australia. One of their final destinations is Wolf Creek, a desolate site in the Outback where a meteorite once hit, creating a giant crater within the earth's land. Their means of transportation comes in the form of Ben (Nathan Phillips), an Aussie native with a car whom they've recently made friends with. Their trip to Wolf Creek runs smoothly enough until it is time to leave. Soon after discovering that their watches have all stopped at the same time, the car won't start. Much-needed help arrives from Mick (John Jarratt), a pleasant Outbacker who agrees to tow their car and fix it free of charge. This seeming good Samaritan, who Kristy compares at one point to "Crocodile Dundee," eventually reveals himself to be far from helpful. His game of choice is not wildlife, it turns out, but stranded motorists, and Liz, Kristy and Ben are next on his list.

First-time writer-director Greg McLean spends nearly a full hour on setup, a risky proposition that might have grown tedious if it weren't for the unhurried care and mounting intrigue he brings to this elongated opening act. By concentrating on the charms and realism of his characters and their naturalistic, laid-back relationships with each other, the crucial turn toward mortal danger means a great deal more to the viewer. And, when one of them meets an abrupt, premature end, you feel their loss afterwards. Liz and Kristy aren't blonde bimbos running around in skimpy lingerie, but look and act like actual, freethinking people. The same goes for Ben, who isn't a priggish alpha male, but more low-key and sweet-natured. When an early stop at a roadside cafe leads to disrespectful, chauvinistic remarks from the burly locals, Ben decides to avoid getting into a big fight with them because he weighs his options before acting and knows it isn't worth it.

Once "Wolf Creek" makes a sudden turn toward sheer panic and terror, director Greg McLean aims squarely for the jugular—or, as the case may be, lower spine. Far from a glossy motion picture starring the hottest young flavor-of-the-week television stars, McLean has cast virtual unknowns Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi and Nathan Phillips, each of them unaffected, likable performers whose very authenticity only adds urgency and puts more at stake when they wake up to a living nightmare. As deliberately paced as the first hour is—essential to making the visceral impact McLean wants to in the second half—the last forty minutes are tightly edited, breathlessly intense, and graphically violent in rattlingly unexpected ways. In a change of events for the genre, the three protagonists do the smart thing at all times, as opposed to, for example, lingering too long as the supposedly dead killer lies on the floor, their minds always working in logical ways that fit their horrific situation. In turn, their deaths do not arise out of their own stupidity, but because their dire circumstances prove impossible to overcome.

In one of the most frightening depictions of human evil in recent memory, John Jarratt is downright brilliant, his endearing personality acting as an unforgettable counterpoint to his grisly, monstrous actions. His first few scenes achieve a heightened level of creepiness and surprise from his mastery of body language, speech, and what he doesn't say, but infers. Usually movie villains are at their most effective when they are silent, but not this time; Jarratt turns his role as serial killer into an art that rivals Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of Hannibal Lecter.

"Inspired by a true story"—that of convicted New South Wales serial killer Ivan Milat—but strong enough to not need this declaration, "Wolf Creek" begins with a statistic that "30,000 people go missing in the Australian Outback each year. 90% are found within a month. Some are never seen again." With that in the back of the audience's mind, the film makes for a scarily plausible example of how people around the world can so easily be abducted and killed, their whereabouts forever left as a mystery. The novel and very specific setting of the Outback—scenically beautiful but endlessly sparse and vast—only ups the believability of these characters' plight; with nothing and nobody around for miles, how can they hope to escape a killer's wrath? "Wolf Creek" is a supremely well-made and unrelenting thriller, putting to shame a whole lot of comparable works that cost three, four, or five times as much to make, but don't even have half the filmmaking prowess and brutal inspiration behind them. With writer-director Greg McLean, a brazen new talent has been born.
© 2005 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman