There are moments in this film that are painfully slow and arborous, which is a shame considering it’s a tale of survival against the odds. And yet, there are moments that are peppered throughout the narrative that give rise to the piece and show signs of promise for Teddy Grennan in his directorial feature debut.
Chief among this is in his lead, Annabelle Dexter-Jones (Under The Silver Lake) delivering a powerful performance as Harper, a nature photographer who witnesses a brutal crime. Stranded in a remote woodland terrain, she is captured and tormented by the culprits. Against the odds, Harper escapes and must use her guile and knowledge of the wild to find her freedom and bring her assailants down.
Her moments of revenge are satisfying on MacGyver style proportions and Harper is truly alone in her fight for survival, as everywhere she turns, she is faced with conspiracy.
There is also a suitably strong performance from Bruce Dern (Silent Running) as a quirky hermit character, and due nods should go to Robert Longstreet (The Haunting of Hill House, and soon to be seen in Midnight Mass, and Halloween Kills) who taps into the darker psyche bringing the alpha villain Ravener the amount of depth needed to make the ordeal more intense.
So far, so middle of the road viewing which neither excites or disappoints, but when the final reel comes around, it is so out of left field and out of keeping with the narrative thus far, that you have to question its placement other than for shock value. The trouble is that it comes across as a misbeat and sours the rest of the film. Not enough character development is put into place to give the shock factor the payoff that the director was aiming for.
It’s a decent enough narrative around survival against the odds, packed with solid performances, but it can’t shake off the mediocrity and then suckerpunches with an incredibly disjointed ending.
Set among the remote wilderness of Canada and on the brink of civilization, Joseph Mersault (Devon Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan) and daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) have chosen to take up residence as fur trappers, living off the land with scant food supplies. I say chosen, but it’s fairly obvious early on that Joseph is the one overseeing that decision, and Anne appears somewhat reluctant and grows tired of the struggles of living in such a remote place. There are hints that Joseph is not happy among people, but it’s never fully explored why this is. Needless to say, he is content to immerse himself in the rugged terrain and has taken to teaching or rigorously training his daughter Renee how to survive in primitive ways and learning the animal traits that will ensure their survival.
Fairly early on, the family fear that a wild wolf has returned and threatens their safety, so Joseph swears to protect them and go on a hunt for the beast. As he stalks his prey however, he stumbles across a more sinister scene as a ritualistic circle of half naked female corpses lay.
Now any sane man would take the information to the police but Joseph is a lone wolf himself and as hinted at earlier communication and social interactions are a distant cry from the characters involved. Instead, Joseph sees it upon himself to venture out and find the killer.
Meanwhile, Anne and Renee are left to fend for themselves and have a fearful encounter with the wolf, but with Joseph’s absence drifting into days, Anne goes to the police to inform them of the vicious brute, only to be dismissed.
With no choice but to embrace their situation, Anne and Renee set out to protect their home, when a wounded man (Nick Stahl) appears one night. Anne has no choice but to aid this stranger, but is there more to him than meets the eye?
Hunter Hunter walks a fine line in its exposure of mankind at its most vulnerable and yet most violently animalistic and vicious. Throughout the films admittedly slow pace, we are left pondering the direction that Shawn Linden is taking us on. Is it a survival horror film? Is this a case of beast vs man? Or does it suggest that there is more to the wild than the beast that lies in its natural habitat?
It is held together by some fine performances, most notably with Sawa and Sullivan.
The slow shambling tension that lurks in its depths brutally awakens with a savage conclusion, drawing out the most feral of humanity when pushed to the brink.
Some may find the closing scenes too gruesome to bear, but the final moments are one that haunts.
Mike Green has been gradually building on his film credentials with a series of screenplays and work as 1st AD on a number of high profile films including Truth starring Cate Blanchet and Robert Redford. Now he has turned his attention to directing his first feature length movie, Outback, a tale of survival in the heart of Australia, and casts a bewildered and fractured American couple in the midst of this savage land.
Before its Sydney screening as part of Monsterfest Australia on Sat 2 Nov at 9pm, Mike sat down with the surgeons team to discuss his journey and his own challenges in creating his vision.
Mike Green interview:
What initially drew you to the story behind Lisa and Wade’s outback plight?
Well, I had a proper budget feature that I was hoping to make with a cast attached and building a team and then Nicole Kidman announced Angel of Mine which on the surface sounded very much like our feature film project. That really pulled the rug beneath our feet and I had a small window of time in which to shoot something because my wife was going back to work from maternity leave and a little bit of money saved on my credit card. So I essentially reverse engineered something I could shoot in a compressed amount of time. And 10 days is what we shot Outback in. So I took a familiar story which was Open Water, the two people that get stranded in the ocean. I thought about taking that situation and placing them in the outback. Limiting your cast means limiting so much of the production, so it was essentially going to be a two-hander. Everyone has a perception of the Australian outback and how vast and dry it is, how it’s filled with critters and creepy crawlies. So I took that idea and instead of having a serial killer or madman as the antagonist, I made Australia and the outback, the antagonist. No one has done a film called Outback which was surprising to me. So I put it all in a blender and out came a two-hander about this couple of Americans and the dynamic between them in a survival thriller with this tragic love story, and place them in a scenario that sees them stranded in the outback.
There is a lot of weight on the shoulders of the two leads, Lauren Lofberg and Taylor Wiese to carry the film. How did you get them to tap into the gravitas of their situation?
The first thing I needed to do when casting was have the right face, character, and persona for the parts, so after reaching out to a few people I spoke to Lauren, who despite her small showreel had something there, but she was looking to do something substantial and put a stamp on something. She put a few self tapes down and she was really emotional and she was going through some things at the time, which I asked with her blessing if I could weave into the storyline because it was something so personal to her and we knew that she could tap into that so easily and access those emotional time stones.
What do you think fascinates us about human survival?
I think there is this primeval situation where you would ask yourself, “what would I do?” It doesn’t take much for the audience to be there with them. The performance and environment helped from a cinematic perspective. You often hear stories of how even locals get lost for two or three days in the Blue Mountains for example, and things can get pretty gnarly quickly. Even with the best intentions and with a phone on you, when you start to get dehydrated, what seems like a smart decision, upon reflection is like, “what was I thinking?”
What has been the most enduring thing that you’ve encountered in your lifetime? Have you had much experience of the outback yourself and what impact did this beautifully vast location have on production.
For me taking from the theme of the movie of not taking tomorrow for granted, was a way into the storyline. From the plot and survival aspect, I used to go to the outback a lot as a kid with a mate who had a property. We were in a couple of situations where we ran out of water and we didn’t have a compass, and when you are out there, you don’t really have any sense of direction other than which way the sun is going. He’d been on the land a bit and I was more of a city slicker, and I remember him saying the mathematical equation that I use in the film, and he knew from my answers that I was dehydrated even though I wasn’t aware of it. I could have been in a lot of trouble if it wasn’t for him and his experience on the land.
What would you say was your toughest challenge during filming?
I’m first AD, I’m producing, I’m catering, like I’m cooking at night, I’m printing off the schedule for the next day for the crew and everyone is working so hard, so you have to lead by example. In that environment and working such long hours in the heat, working so intimately with such a tight-knit crew, It’s not always rosy and part of having such a good team is allowing people to let off steam in certain ways. The toughest thing was keeping everyone emotionally and physically on the same page in what we were trying to do. You’re really fathering a group of people, in the most beautiful way.
What do you think or hope that people will take home after watching Outback?
I’m hoping the audience reflect on their own life and how they can embrace the day or the moment, whether that’s with their family, career, or just life itself, and appreciate it. I know that sounds a bit arty farty, but being in Australia, there shouldn’t be anyone whinging really. Any kind of developed country, I know there has been some bad things that have happened, but each to their own I guess.
Now that your first feature film is released into the festival circuit, what was the biggest learning you will take and what is next on the horizon?
I think the biggest learning for me is to keep making stuff, It’s not always going to click but you should be getting better when you make stuff and that’s the key to improving. It’s that old adage, “Practice, practice, practice”. In regards to what’s next, I’m working with a bunch of writers I kinda wanna be aggressive and get projects made and being prolific.
During filming of Australian western The Proposition, British actor Ray Winstone once remarked that every living thing in this country was out to kill you. It’s this component that director Mike Green wanted to paint of his homeland to evoke that sense of fear and dread in the vast open plain.
Instead of having a serial killer or madman as the antagonist, I made Australia and the outback, the antagonist”
We often vision Australia as this serene, beautiful land which on the surface casts one of the most majestic scenes that our planet offers, but if you delve deep enough, you find the hidden dangers lurking in plain sight. Green lures us into the desert terrain through the eyes of an American couple on what should have been a romantic adventure, but like the land in which they set out to explore, Lisa (Lauren Lofsberg) and Wade (Tyler Wiese) are just as fractured and unpredictable.
We join Lisa and Wade at the start of their journey from Sydney Airport where we learn that Lisa has rejected Wade’s marriage proposal. The result finds the couple disconnected and searching for each other to see whether the relationship is worth fighting for. In doing so, they become lost and insignificant in a foreign land. Testament to Green’s writing skills should be mentioned as he draws out some well-developed characters in his leads which is fleshed out with some fantastic performances. This is a good thing as between them they need to carry the movie with very little other characters to interact with. By the film’s conclusion, we really care about their outcome, because Green has taken the time for us to connect and care for them both.
The choices that Lisa and Wade that lead them to their ordeal are born out of ignorance and naivety but their decisions that are believable and in the moment, as they try to navigate their way to survival whilst facing a number of dangers along the way from snakes and scorpions, to searing heat and dehydration. All of which surmount into a gripping, heart-wrenching drama that captivates right to the end.
Director Mike Green takes the audience on a brutal and harsh journey of survival through the lens of an American couple on the brink of collapse. The gritty realism along with excellent performances helps lift this movie and casts a blistering light on the savage land with a narrative that keeps you hooked and willing the characters to endure their torment and live to tell their tale.
Outback will be screening atMonsterfest Australia 2019, where cast and crew will be available for a Q&A post film screening time below: