The grindhouses closed a long time ago, driven out by adventurous viewers’ ability to feed their seedier tastes at home. But the grindhouse spirit lives on, often assuming some complex, thoughtful shapes even while delivering on a promise of lurid thrills. It seems to have found a particularly welcoming home in Australia of late, based on the appearance of Hounds of Love earlier this year and now Killing Ground, an impressive and unsettling first feature from Damien Power set in a remote patch of Australian wilderness that becomes a, well, check the title.
Things start well enough for Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer) when they decide to spend New Year’s Eve camping at a lakeside spot far away from the rest of the world, or at least as far away as a short trip will allow. Sure, Ian spends a little time talking about his work as a doctor and Sam doesn’t leave all thoughts of her publishing work behind her. But this is a weekend about them. So they set up a tent on the edge of the water (and out of range of cell reception), make some plans to hike up to the falls, and express only mild disappointment when the presence of a nearby tent means they’ll have to have sex quietly so as not to bother their neighbors. It’s not a perfect situation, but it’ll do. One weird thing though: they never see their neighbors come out of their tent.
We do, however. They’re a close, happy family of four. Sure, the dad (Julian Garner) spends a little too much time strumming Simon & Garfunkel songs for his teenager daughter’s (Tiarnie Coupland) taste. But his wife (Maya Stange) doesn’t mind, and everyone dotes over Ollie, their sweet toddler. They’re having a lovely time together. So why can’t Ian and Sam see them? And how is it that they found a tiny hat with Ollie’s name in it while doing a bit of hiking?
In time, it becomes clear that Powers is telling his story while sidestepping through time. (Between this film and Dunkirk, it seems to be the season for it.) But both timelines share a pair of characters neither party will be happy they encountered: German (Aaron Pedersen) and Chook (Aaron Glenane), a pair of low-level criminals who’ve decided to graduate into darker varieties of mayhem.
Their sadism unfolds across two increasingly tense, unpleasant chronologies. But as brutal as Killing Ground gets, Power brings a rare skill and thoughtfulness to his debut. Like Hounds of Love, it doubles as a study of an abusive relationship, this one between German and Chook, that latter motivated primarily by his desire to please his bigger, scarier partner. It also, without giving too much away, inches into turf covered by Force Majeure and The Loneliest Planet. As the situation intensifies, it becomes a test of how far Ian will go to save his girlfriend as it exposes how little his life up to this point has prepared him to confront a violent threat with no use for the rules of polite society.
Power also brings a remarkable degree of technical skill to the film, cutting between his two chronologies at telling moments and turning the idyllic surroundings into a place where danger and horror seems to rest behind each bend in the trail. In one long, memorable tracking shot, Sam makes her way through the forest, her distressed face demanding our attention until a tiny figure who seems barely able to walk appears deep in the background. Power may be working in a tradition that goes back to the Times Square’s grimiest days, but his debut proves there’s still a lot of life in it in the right hands. It’s scary enough to make even those with a closet filled with L.L. Bean clothing think twice before going outside.