Red Hill. 2010. Directed & Written by Patrick Hughes.
Starring Ryan Kwanten, Tommy Lewis, Steve Bisley, Claire van der Boom, Christopher Davis, Kevin Harrington, Richard Sutherland, John Brumpton, Eddie Baroo, & Tim Hughes.
Wildheart Films/Hughes House Film/Screen Australia
Rated R. 95 minutes.
The Western genre has been plagued for decades by colonial attitudes. The most famous Westerns and some of their stars have taken awful stances on Native Americans, as well as black people. Later movies in the genre began to work against old conventions and tropes, particularly some Spaghetti Westerns. Yet so many of the genre’s titles, even supposedly great ones, have been marred by the damaging Othering of people of colour, in favour of the cowboys – the white man – being hailed as hero.
Red Hill is a postmodern Australian Western. Like America, the Outback has its own set of colonial issues concerning Indigenous Australians. The movie subverts conventions and tropes of the genre in order to condemn colonisation, both in real life and also in Western fiction. Even better, one of the main roles is played by Jimmy Lewis— his first role in a feature was as the titular role in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, a 1978 Australian production about many of the same issues as Red Hill.
Revenge isn’t a new topic for the Western, it’s a plot we see recycled frequently. Director-writer Patrick Hughes uses the typical revenge story in such a way he’s able to shift our perceptions of good v. bad. Not just that, the age old trope of Cowboys and Indians is transformed into a vessel for the rage of Indigenous people who’ve been colonised and mistreated since the day the British set foot in Australia.
The scariest part of Red Hill is it was made in 2010, and it was so prescient about where white attitudes were headed. Not saying there was no racism prior to this movie’s release, that’s ridiculous— it’s undeniable over the past decade racism has become more prevalent than ever despite our insistence global society’s changing its old ways. There’s a glaring hypocrisy in the attitudes of certain white characters in the movie that rings so true about real life whites: they have no time for Indigenous Australians trying to preserve land, they come in bulldozing traditional values and sacred ground, and then they’re upset when a “city boy” like Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) moves in from the city unaware of how things work in their tiny town. Just like today, white Americans/Australians(etc) complain about immigrants coming into their country, when they themselves were the original immigrants.
It’s from this colonial perspective which Red Hill works best. Later, as secrets are revealed, we discover white indifference and capitalist greed led to the plot’s violent events. Jimmy Conway (Lewis) was trying to protect the natural landscape and Indigenous space of high country Australia. When he stopped a big land development, preventing new economic growth in Red Hill, the white men – led by the law – got together a posse and took misguided revenge on him, during which he killed some men. This put Jimmy in jail, then years later he breaks out for his own revenge.
Hughes explores many of the effects of white capitalist greed. For instance, it’s obvious Jimmy experiences the worst effects, but Cooper’s an example of a white men, guilty by association, who nearly gets fatally caught in the web of deceit his new colleagues spun long before his arrival. Red Hill does good by not making Cooper into a white saviour— he does try to aid Jimmy in getting revenge, though in the end this doesn’t go as planned, and Jimmy’s never once seen as a passive character in need of saving.
Hughes’s screenplay smartly works to revise the Western in an effort to expose colonial attitudes underpinning the genre. The typical Western decades ago was characterised by good v. bad, usually represented in the Cowboy as a good archetype, even if they were an outlaw, and the Indian usually referred to derogatorily as savage, uncivilised, and representative of the bad.
Maybe the best scene in this regard is one in the bar, where Jimmy’s hunting down those responsible for ravaging and killing his wife. Not only is the whole thing cool as shit – he pops some Stevie Wright on the jukebox – Jimmy literally dresses himself in the getup of a cowboy, embodying the typical colonial character and subverting it to his own uses. This is such a significant piece of symbolism: Jimmy sheds his villain skin – the one given to him by the conventions of the Western – and becomes the rightful hero. If we didn’t see it fully before, this symbolic transformation shows us who’s really on what side of the good-bad binary.
Another significant, subtle bit of writing is the naming of Steve Bisley’s character, Old Bill. The term Old Bill originates from the UK, as an informal name for the police. With the themes working against colonial attitudes, Red Hill makes a statement with this name alone. Bill is at the core of what happened to Jimmy, and his name being Old Bill specifically makes those themes heavier. He’s the epitome of a violent colonialism that’s thrived in Australia. Bill would be right at home alongside the MAGA-heads in America, with his refusal to see a time before his vision of Australia and his “sense of pride” in the colonial past. A subplot in the movie concerns a rural Australian legend of a panther loose from a travelling circus roaming the countryside to this day. When Cooper talks to Bill about this in regards to some dead cattle, the latter replies: “This is Australia, mate. Not fucking Africa.” It seems a throwaway line. But it’s a revealing moment about Old Bill and his thoughts on what is or isn’t ‘foreign’ to Australia. Worthy of classification as a Freudian slip.
Not to rag on anybody else’s taste in movies— I desperately wish Patrick Hughes were still telling stories like this, as opposed to The Expendables 3 or The Hitman’s Bodyguard. In a day and age where so many white storytellers are either straight up telling Indigenous stories, or making Indigenous stories into yawn-worthy stories of white saviours, there’s something to be said for a movie such as Red Hill. Hughes could’ve easily gone a totally different route. Instead he makes a smart movie with a strong message, all the while employing Western imagery we recognise to turn the genre into a vehicle for telling important stories that require telling.
The ending doesn’t exactly provide catharsis. Jimmy gets revenge, then winds up gunned down anyway. Ultimately, Red Hill shows us how white capitalist greed and colonial attitudes more often than not lead a society into violence, and then violence begets violence begets more violence in an endless cycle of assault and revenge. Jimmy is justified in his quest to find bloody retribution. That doesn’t change the fact that, were white people to choose not invading the cultural and physical spaces of Indigenous peoples, this violence might never have happened. We shouldn’t need fiction to teach these lessons. When the history books are lagging behind, it’s up to artists and storytellers to get the job done.