Overview: A couple going camping come across an unsettling scene and find themselves fighting for their lives. IFC Midnight; 2017; Not Rated; 88 minutes.
Uneven Ground: Australian movies are usually great. Their brutality is unmatched, and the matter-of-fact way they handle violence is astonishing (remember Hounds of Love?). But they also usually contain a hefty dose of social commentary or an artistry that balances the depravity. If they don’t, then some are full-blown Ozploitation films that carry more charm than they should be allowed. Killing Ground doesn’t seem to fall into either camp and ends up becoming a sort of aimless and mean movie that subjects you to its darkness without catharsis.
Killing Ground suffers a kind of unfortunate discrepancy between two parts. In one, a young couple is looking to quietly camp out in a private, childhood camping location. There they discover a large orange tent that seems to be unoccupied with tenants who appear to be missing. On the flip side, it tells the story of what exactly happened to those original campers before the couple ever arrived. It does its best to seamlessly switch between both stories, but it suffers because only one of these stories is interesting even when they overlap.
Shifting Ground: The first and least compelling story is that of Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows), your generic couple in love. He’s a doctor, she’s…very into reading. After some gentle banter they realize they’ve forgotten their champagne and make a quick stop at the liquor store along the way. There Ian meets a rowdy dog named Banjo, and a local named German (a threatening Aaron Pederson) who informs them that their vehicle is not going to get them to their original location, but that he knows of another area nearby that will be easier to access without 4-wheel drive. Red flag number one.
Once arriving at the scene, we’re shown a beautiful camping spot right on the beach. It’s secluded and private except for a lone tent whose inhabitants are off on a hike, presumably. “What if they’re dickheads?” Ian asks, before being reassured by Sam that if they are, they can just hide in their tent and she can be super quiet having sex when required. While setting up said tent, Sam proposes to Ian so that we might care more about their imminent future. Thankfully, the potential-dickhead family has a much more interesting story, one that likely could have held its own without the addition of whitebread Sam and Ian discovering much too late what happened to them.
As the movie flops back and forth between its stories, it introduces us to the missing family. There’s Em (Tiarnie Coupland), a good-natured but cellphone-obsessed teenager who struggles with night terrors, Margaret (Maya Stange), her mother, who spends her time caring for her toddler son Ollie, and the father. While the family lacks some natural cohesion, their personalities are much more clearly defined and Coupland in particular gives one of the strongest performances of the entire cast. Most importantly, it’s easy to care what happens to them and want to know more about them as individuals. This makes the reveal more impactful and emotional, a feeling that somehow dissolves once they’re unfortunately taken out of the picture.
There are enough trope-like leans in Killing Ground to ensure that what follows are only minor spoilers. Of course German from the liquor store has something to do with this missing family, and with the punctured tire of the couple’s car. He and his roommate Chook (Aaron Glenane) are carefully evading the law while continuing to senselessly harm innocent people, for one of them a sort of rite of passage.
Well-trod ground: It’s worth it to think about this interesting habit that horror films have of portraying locals—particularly locals who live in poverty—as criminals. Just in case you’re not convinced by the disheveled house and lack of personal hygiene, German briefly alludes to his time in prison and we’re treated to scenes of he and Chook nastily trying to get with women at the bar and banter with the local law enforcement, while also revealing a little bit of their tense and unclear relationship.
By the time Sam and Ian realize that something is definitely not right, a bloody toddler has stumbled sickeningly into the scene. What happens next comes fast and it doesn’t really let up for the rest of the movie. It gets uglier, louder, and struggles to keep its shape. There are some effective moments of tension, one taking place with Em inside a locked vehicle, and the other the moment Ian knows they’ve made a grave mistake. Otherwise it’s a bit tired and muddy.
You might feel like this story is a little familiar and it is, in a way. 2008’s Eden Lake had a similar story of an idyllic romantic getaway interrupted by rowdy locals (in this case, youths) who took things way too far. It also left a cruelly bitter taste in the mouth, but it was an effective and thrilling movie that, in its own limited way, challenged the strength of the familial bond, childhood innocence, and culpability in its crimes. Without this, it could easily have become a movie filled with brutal violence and an empty experience. In other words, it could have been more like Killing Ground.
Overall: Killing Ground repeatedly goes from compelling to bland and back again, but seems more comfortable staying in the latter.
Killing Ground hits theaters and VOD on July 21, 2017.
Featured Image: IFC Midnight