Patrick Hughes is an established director of high-end commercials. He has made advertisements for clients including Cadbury, Ford, Honda and Vodafone. Drawing from numerous long-established traditions, including the Western, Australian Gothic and the thriller, Red Hill is Hughes’ first foray into feature-length cinema.
The film traces the story of a young policeman, Constable Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten), who transfers from the city to a quiet town in the Victorian High Country (Red Hill) for the wellbeing of his heavily pregnant wife. For Cooper, what starts as a quiet first day on the job quickly transforms into a battle for life, after the escape of Aboriginal convict Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis) from the region’s only prison. Conway is determined to exact revenge on the Red Hill police officers and locals who raped and murdered his wife, framing him for the crime. Set within a 24-hour time period and against a backdrop of violent chaos, the film deals with issues of Aboriginal representation and condemns racism.
Halfway through the film, spliced between two of Conway’s revenge-fuelled slayings of Red Hill police officers and armed locals, there is a moment of extended contemplation. A quiet guitar melody with a deliberate, unhurried pace punctuates the sound of rumbling thunder and the clip-clops of Conway’s horse as he rides slowly along the main street. The tune recedes as a wide shot shows Conway stopping in front of the Red Hill information centre. The following close-up allows Conway’s scarred face to be seen in great detail as he turns to look at the “historical display” in the front window – a mannequin of an elderly, almost naked Aboriginal man wielding a spear and a boomerang, surrounded by carefully positioned branches and shrubbery. Thunder crashes and lightning illuminates the exhibit with white light. An extreme close-up that shows Conway’s eyes narrowing as he glares menacingly at the display is paired with a close-up on the mannequin’s head. Thunder cracks again and a second lightning flash causes the window to reveal the reflection of local man Earl (Ken Radley) crouching on a rooftop, poised to shoot Conway. Conway’s “lightning-fast” reflexes enable him to swivel and fire first.
Earlier in the film, police officer Jim Barlow (Kevin Harrington) directs Cooper to the town hall, using the display as a point of reference. He proudly states: “You can’t miss it”. The display, quite literally, puts Aboriginal culture safely behind glass, as something consigned to history, a museum piece best appreciated as a relic of the past. Its singularity claims to capture all of what it means to be Aboriginal – a “primitive”, “uncivilised” existence.
“… in order to make a visual representation of indigenous peoples, one must believe they are dying, as well as use artifice to make a picture which appears more true, more pure.” (1) Similarly to Fatimah Tobing Rony’s analysis of ethnographic documentary, Red Hill’s historical display posits Aboriginal culture as something that needs to be “saved” and preserved for educational viewing.
This haunting sequence is an explicit critique of Aboriginal representation throughout the history of Australian cinema. Most Australian films from the early and mid-20th century that deal with Aboriginal subject matter – including Uncivilised (Charles Chauvel, 1936), Bitter Springs (Ralph Smart, 1950) and Jedda (Charles Chauvel, 1955) – portray Aboriginals from a European, often condescending perspective. As such, Aboriginal character types were restrictive and largely limited to: the noble savage, the mother figure, the tracker or boundary rider, the faithful companion, the criminal or the victim. The lightning flash that briefly casts white light over the historical display partly symbolises the will and power of white Australia being projected onto the captive Aboriginal culture. Much like the kangaroos caught motionless in the bright headlights of spotlighters in Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986), the Aboriginal image on display in the main street is frozen in time. Conway is glaring at those who seek to define Aboriginals using generalities and racist assumptions.
“We all know what we’re dealing with here. Jimmy Conway rides into this town, he’ll be bringing hell with him. Shoot to kill.” (Old Bill)
For much of the film we are led to believe that Conway is exactly (and only) how Red Hill police officers describe him – a heavily armed, homicidal criminal. The “we” Old Bill refers to is not just the men to whom he is assigning town-defence responsibilities. The line also directly addresses Australian audiences, who may think they know what they are dealing with when it comes to Conway. Conway’s glare at the historical display is a hint that Aboriginal culture should not and cannot be taken at face value. Late in the film, a stream of no-nonsense flashbacks unveils Conway’s emotional complexity and seeks to position him as an “anti-hero” by revealing his innocence. Like the titular character (Tom E. Lewis [as Tommy Lewis]) in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith [Fred Schepisi, 1978]), Conway is multi-dimensional and embodies more than just the stereotype seen in the historical display. He is a skilled tracker, devoted husband and would have been a loving father had he not been victimised by Old Bill and his notably all-male police department.
Hughes’ only feature to date is recognised for its high-octane action sequences, but this moment of suspension between Conway’s killings of complicit bar owner Ted (Jim Daly) and Earl is more than a brief respite. It is the politically charged calm at the eye of the storm. It is infused with an unexpected intimacy that provokes pathos and separates Conway from the sub-humanity and “Otherness” implied by the exhibit. Later in the film, Cooper drives past the information centre to find the display in ruins, an iconic image signifying Hughes’ rejection of traditional notions of an all-encompassing Aboriginality.