“Salvation, 11 letters? Second letter, e”, asks Sam (Harriet Dyer), doing the crossword in the car as her boyfriend Ian (Ian Meadows) drives through the Australian bush. They are en route to spend New Year’s Eve at Gungilee Falls Creek, a secluded, idyllic spot where Ian had camped as a child. For the missing word, Sam tries ‘redemption’, but it doesn’t fit – which is not a good omen given the title of writer/director Damien Power’s feature debut, Killing Ground. Another hint of what kind of film is to come is hidden in the never-revealed answer to that crossword clue: ‘deliverance’. For like John Boorman’s 1972 survivalist classic of that title, Killing Ground will see urban outsiders having a violent run-in with rape-happy locals.
The sense of doom sets in early, as the couples find a four-wheel drive and a large tent already at the site, and apparently abandoned by the occupants – and as Sam and Ian’s stay passes over into the New Year, it is intercut with the story of what happened, three days earlier, to the previous family that camped there: Margaret (Maya Stange), Rob (Julian Garner), their 16-year-old daughter Em (Tiarnie Coupland) and toddler Ollie (Liam and Riley Parkes). This story shadows the couple’s sojourn like a ghost, before gradually creeping up on them. Meanwhile, a third narrative thread follows local ex-con ‘German’ Sheperd (Aaron Pederson) and his younger friend ‘Chook’ Fowler (Aaron Glenane) as they leer longingly at young women and go hunting wild pigs together. Power ratchets the tension, expertly interweaving these three storylines with their different chronologies, before bringing them all together on the bushland track leading from the campsite to the Gungilee Falls themselves – a place as haunted by distant as recent history, given its grim associations with a massacre of Aborigines.
Young Em suffers from nightmares, and Margaret and Rob discuss getting her ‘imagery rehearsal therapy’ that will enable Em to rewrite the ending of her bad dreams. Similarly, when Sam and Ian, in their tent, miss the countdown to the New Year, Ian rewinds his clock so they can pretend that they are experiencing the happy moment now passed. This notion of revisionism furnishes a glimmer of hope in parallel narratives that seem to be moving along the same tragic trajectory – and also speaks to a nation that wishes it could somehow erase the horrors and predations of its colonialist past.
All this makes Killing Ground resonate with more than just its immediate thriller plotting. That evocative bushland, beautifully shot by Simon Chapman, comes with its own dreamtime echoes, and the barest hint of something supernatural at work in the undergrowth may leave viewers wondering if maybe there is space for redemption, and a future, after all.
Killing Ground was seen and reviewed at the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival. For more information, visit the website.