MED231 Australian Cinema
Critical Review and Bibliography of the film Wolf Creek
Part 1: Film Information
Director: Greg McLean
Writer: Greg McLean
Producer: Greg McLean, David Lightfoot
Cinematographer: Will Gibson
Editor: Jason Ballantine
Production Designer: Robert Webb
Art Director: Robert Webb
Original Music: François Tétaz
John Jarratt Mick Taylor
Cassandra Magrath Liz Hunter
Kestie Morassi Kristy Earl
Nathan Phillips Ben Mitchell
Andy McPhee Barry
Gordon Poole Old Man
Guy O'Donnell Car Salesman
Phil Stevenson Mechanic
Geoff Revell Petrol Attendant
Aaron Sterns Barry's Mate
The True Crime Channel Pty Ltd
The Weinstein Company
INTERNATIONAL RELEASE DATES (CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER):
USA January 2005 (Sundance Film Festival)
Australia March 2005 (Adelaide, South Australia) (premiere)
France 17th May 2005 (Cannes Film Festival)
Australia 23rd July 2005 (Melbourne International Film Festival)
UK 16th September 2005 (National release)
Italy 4th October 2005 (Ravenna Nightmare Film Festival)
Australia 6th October 2005 (Adelaide, South Australia)
USA 18th October 2005 (Screamfest Film Festival)
Australia 3rd November 2005 (National release)
Italy 18th November 2005 (National release)
Canada 25th December 2005 (National release)
USA 25th December 2005 (National release)
Greece 12th January 2005 (National release)
France 27th January 2006 (Gerardmer Film Festival)
Portugal 2nd February 2006 (National release)
Brazil 3rd February 2006 (National release)
Singapore 2nd March 2006 (National release)
Denmark 3rd March 2006 (National release)
Norway 24th March 2006 (National release)
Thailand 30th March 2006 (National release)
Finland 2nd April 2006 (Night Visions Film Festival)
Iceland 7th April 2006 (National release)
Turkey 7th April 2006 (National release)
Netherlands 21st April 2006 (Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival)
Finland 12th May 2006 (National release)
Germany 13th July 2006 (National release)
France 9th August 2006 (National release)
Country Opening position Opening weekend gross Gross
Australia #1 $AU1,223,679 (141 screens) $AU5,900,713
USA #9 $US4,908,206 (1,749 screens) $US16,186,348
UK #4 £554,618 (UK) (292 Screens) £1,556,982
<$AU2 million (this is an approximation as different sources give slightly varying figures ranging from $AU1 million (Internet Movie Database) to $AU1.4million (Sydney Morning Herald).
Australian Film Institute Awards Nominated Categories (2005):
Empire Magazine AFI Award For Best Direction (Greg McLean)
Stella Artois AFI Award For Best Original Screenplay (Greg McLean)
Grand Hyatt Melbourne AFI Award For Best Supporting Actress (Kestie Morassi)
Complete Post AFI Award For Best Editing (Jason Ballantine)
AFI Award For Best Original Music Score (François Tétaz)
AFI Award For Best Sound (Des Kenneally, Peter Smith, Pete Best, Tom Heuzenroeder)
ATLAD AFI Award For Best Cinematography (Will Gibson)
IF Awards Nominated Categories (2005):
Best Direction (Greg McLean)
Best Cinematography (Will Gibson)
Best Production Design (Robert Webb)
Best Sound (Pete Best, Peter D. Smith, Frank Tetaz)
Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Nominated Categories (2006):
Saturn Award (Best Horror Film)
Sundance Film Festival Nominated Categories (2005):
Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema – Dramatic) (Greg McLean)
Empire Awards Nominated Categories (2006):
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF REVIEWS:
My research of Wolf Creek uncovered several hundred reviews and as such the list of reviews of the film is far too comprehensive to include in its entirety here. Therefore I have included references to what I consider to be best reviews, determined largely by the credibility of the source, but more importantly because they provide insight into the varying critical uptake of the film preceding and at the time of its release. I aimed to find and include here as many Australian sources as possible, so in some cases articles from international sources were discarded in favour of Australian ones. The majority of reviews found were from online sources, though a few were from print documents. In many cases, the official websites of reputable newspapers contained these articles, but whether they appeared in the printed version of the newspapers is unknown, but links to them are provided nonetheless.
- Inside Film Magazine -
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation -
- Village Voice -
- British Broadcasting Corporation -
- Washington Post -
- Los Angeles Times -
- USA Today –
- San Francisco Chronicle -
- The Age -
- New York Post -
- New York Times -
- Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times -
- Hollywood Reporter -
- Variety - http://www.variety.com/index.asp?layout=Ten2Watch2005&content=jump&nav=directors&articleID=VR1117916484
- Arclight Films -
- In Film -
- Box Office Website -
‘Wolf Creek’, Empire Magazine, December 2005, p.18, written by Matt Coyte.
‘Wolf Creek: Odds and Ends’, X-Press Magazine, Issue # 977, published 3rd November 2005, written by Tim Stewart.
This review can also be found online for those who missed the print issue:
OTHER SIGNIFICANT LINKS:
I felt these pages were worth including because they are very comprehensive and were a major source in gathering a lot of my information. Most of them contain a vast number of links to other online reviews of Wolf Creek.
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/wolf_creek/ - contains 99 reviews.
Internet Movie Database:
Inside Film Magazine:
http://www.if.com.au/tools/find.taf?fn=list – contains 93 articles concerning Wolf Creek.
http://mrqe.com/ has links to 119 reviews.
INTERVIEWS WITH FILMMAKERS:
Greg McLean (Writer, Director, Co-Producer):
- SBS -
- Eat My Brains -
- Channel 4 -
- Dark Horizons -
- Horror.com -
- Coming Soon -
- Bloody Disgusting -
Mediaweek Magazine, Issue 742, October 2005.
David Lightfoot (Co-Producer)
- Indie Film Nation -
Will Gibson (Cinematographer)
- Indie Film Nation -
INTERVIEWS WITH CAST:
- Film 247
- Web Wombat -
- The Blurb -
Cassandra Magrath & Kestie Morassi
- Web Wombat -
- Future Movies -
Part 2: Critical Review – Plot synopsis and personal commentary
Wolf Creek tells the horrific story of the abduction of three young backpackers in the Australian outback. A cross-country sight-seeing road trip comes to an abrupt halt when their car mysteriously breaks down at the site of the Wolf Creek crater in the middle of the vast desert landscape, their only salvation the intervention of the amicably ocker Mick Taylor, who offers his help to the stranded trio. When his attempts to fix the car fail (citing a lack of the parts required), he offers to tow them back to his house to finish the job. Short on options and persuaded by Mick’s laconic charm, the trio – Liz, Kristy and Ben – acquiesce, enduring the car ride which is painfully long – both for the characters and the for the audience who aren’t quite as convinced of Mick’s altruistic intentions. After falling asleep around the campfire Mick has built for them, the nightmare begins. Liz awakes in a dark shed, bound and gagged, to the sound of Kristy’s nearby screams, while Ben, nailed to makeshift crucifix in a dank, cave-like dwelling, struggles to gain consciousness. A sinister game of cat-and-mouse - played out in grisly, violent detail - ensues, as the characters’ attempts to escape are hindered by Mick’s extensive arsenal of weaponry and the harsh boundlessness of their geographical surroundings.
Wolf Creek is a film which, preceding and following its release, has polarised both critics and audiences alike, largely due to its unrelentingly graphic depiction of violence. While some considered the Christmas Day release date in the US to be in bad taste¹, in the Northern Territory the film did not open, following a request by its Director of Public Prosecutions to delay the film’s release for fear it would influence the then-ongoing Falconio murder trial². But preceding the film’s release date scheduling, Wolf Creek’spremiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005 reportedly caused walkouts from audience members³ while simultaneously garnering a nomination for The Grand Jury Prize and accolades for its “daring, original blend of visually hypnotic thriller with unbearably scary movie”. Furthermore, the film was picked up by Miramax’s Dimension Films, who paid around $5 million to distribute the film internationally. It was clear that Wolf Creek was a film generating hype and stirring controversy throughout the international market long before its release.
On release however, the film was both loved and hated by critics the world over. Wolf Creek became the subject of what appeared to be two diametrically opposing camps of critical opinion, receiving both positive reviews from those who saw it as an innovative, visually powerful achievement in the horror genre, and negative reviews from those who renounced the film as a pointless, plot-less, exploitative exercise in gratuitous, misogynistic violence. Acclaimed film critic for The Chicago-Sun Times Roger Ebert gave the film a zero-star rating, berating the film as a self-indulgent, “sadistic celebration of pain and cruelty…with one clear purpose: To establish the commercial credentials of its director by showing his skill at depicting the brutal tracking, torture and mutilation of screaming young women” , while Mike Clark of USA Today gave it one and a half stars, claiming that the film’s unimaginative emphasis on violence at the expense of tension makes for very sub-par viewing 6. Conversely, prominent Australian film critics David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz unanimously gave the film a four out of five star rating, joining the assemblage of critics who praise not only the actors’ powerfully naturalistic performances but also the filmmakers’ abilities to masterfully generate an at-times unbearable sense of suspense and tension within a brilliantly shot and effectively scored genre film. These include Jim Schembri of The Age, who called the film “a cheaply made, highly derivative, blood-soaked splatter film”, but “the skill with which McLean synthesizes his cinematic sampling into a seamless, deeply seductive narrative” sets the film apart, making it a cut above the rest of the horror genre; while Gavin Bond of reputable In Film Australia website, applauds the “impressive naturalistic performances from the fledgling stars, the realistic dialogue and the gritty doco-style direction and cinematography” 9,ultimately giving the film a four out of five star rating.
Regardless of negative reviews and controversy, Wolf Creek is generally considered a successful film: not only did it collect a host of award nominations in the US and the UK, as well as seven AFI award nominations (all in major categories), but its financial success is unequivocal. Debuting at #1 at the Australian box office – the first Australian film to do so since 2004’s Strange Bedfellows - Wolf Creek became Australia’s highest grossing R-rated film, surpassing the record previously held by Chopper (2000). In the US, the film opened at #9, making $8 million ($US5.9 million) in its opening weekend, screening on over 1749 screens throughout the country. Made for less than $AU2 million and going on to gross $AU6 million domestically and $US16 million in America – reaching a worldwide gross of $US25 million - Wolf Creek is a financially successful film indeed, becoming the first Australian film to go into profit since Fat Pizza in 2003.
Wolf Creek marks the first foray into feature film for both writer/director/producer Greg McLean and cinematographer Will Gibson, whose previous efforts include the short films ICQ (2001) and Sticky Date (1998), respectively. Interestingly, rather than formal training in filmmaking, McLean cites his extensive background in theatre (he is a graduate in stage direction from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts) and painting as responsible for his adept ability to work with actors and his unique visual style. Although McLean originally penned the script five or six years ago as a standard horror-thriller film set in the Outback, real-life cases of abduction and murder that have occurred in Australia since - most notably the Ivan Milat backpacker murders and the more recent Peter Falconio murder trial – have had great influence on the film’s subsequent rewritings. Although the film purports to be based on real events, it is not so much a cinematic re-enactment of a specific case as it is influenced and inspired by certain characteristics of the real-life notorious figures and their activities. This is certainly true for the characters, in particular the antagonist, Mick Taylor, whose seductive, persuasive charm is a motivating trait in terms of the plot (he convinces the backpackers to be towed back to his place) and characteristic not only of certain Australian cultural figures (McLean names Mick Dundee and Steve Irwin in particular), but also of the real-life perpetrators, who similarly used their powers of persuasion to ensnare their victims. The fact that McLean has drawn on figures and events specific to Australia gives the film a greater sense of cultural significance, perhaps resonating more strongly with Australian audiences as it draws on certain fears specific the national Australian psyche, which may explain the film’s popularity in Australia compared with the general critical hesitance with which the film was received in the US.
The film is also a welcome return to cinema for acclaimed Australian actor John Jarratt, whose role as Mick Taylor is far from removed from his better-known roles in films such as Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), We Of The Never Never (1982) and All Men Are Liars (1995). Considering that Mick Taylor is constructed as a dark parody of well-known Australian icons, such as Mick Dundee and Steve Irwin, I think the use of Jarratt in the role of Mick is the film’s masterstroke, for watching the transformation of this Australian screen icon into his character in Wolf Creek – said by Jarratt to be "the best thing I’ve ever done" 10 - is all the more terrifying. On the other hand, the use of relatively unknown actors for the roles of Ben, Kristy and Liz is extremely effective in augmenting the naturalism of the film and its characters. Ben is played by Nathan Phillips, who although has starred in several well-known Australian films, such as Australian Rules (2002) and One Perfect Day (2004), is still a relatively unknown actor, particularly outside Australia. Having perhaps established himself as somewhat of a comedy actor through his roles in the films You And Your Stupid Mate (2005), Under The Radar (2004) and Take Away (2003), Wolf Creek is markedly different filmic territory for Phillips, allowing him to expand his repertoire in this stand-out role. Moreover, although Kestie Morassi’s resume includes well-known Australian films such as Thunderstruck (2004), Strange Bedfellows (2004) and Dirty Deeds (2002) (as well as a minor role in the Hollywood production Darkness Falls (2003)) and Cassandra Magrath has featured prominently in TV series such as Blue Heelers and undertaken minor film roles in Hotel de Love (1996) and The Rouseabout (2003), both actresses are relatively unknown to the vast majority of Australian audiences. So although we might compare Jarratt’s role as Mick to his previous characters and thereby respond to him with a heightened sense of fear and unease, in the case of the three younger actors there is little point of reference for the audience, making their construction as ordinary, everyday people caught in an extraordinary situation all the more believable.
Although Wolf Creek is undeniably a horror film – from the dark, foreboding imagery, to the grim, macabre iconography, to the plot’s central focus on the threat of fatal violence – it is interesting to try and place it within the context of Australian cinema, for it seems to stand apart from the rest of the traditional horror genre films. Wolf Creek exists in a group of films which seem to have constituted their own increasingly popular horror sub-genre: that of the ‘isolated horror’ film, which includes the likes of Wake In Fright (1971), Dead Calm (1989), The Hills Have Eyes (1977, remade in 2006)and particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, remade in 2003),which Wolf Creek is commonly compared to. These films employ similar techniques in generating a sense of tension and fear, specifically through geographically isolating characters from civilization and thus hindering the possibility of escape and external intervention – the setting itself is therefore often as much a source of threat as the antagonist. Moreover, in the context of Australian horror films, Wolf Creek continues to set itself apart from the horror films that have preceded it. Whereas many of the horror films that Australia has produced – Cut (2000), Bad Taste (1987) and Undead (2003) all come to mind – are characterized by humourously-excessive, pretentious displays of gore, the violence in Wolf Creek is remarkably more sinister, characterized by images of mutilated corpses and scenes of torture and sexual degradation. So although it is a horror film, it seems that Wolf Creek fits more appropriately within the group of ‘ultraviolent’ Australian films such as Chopper (2000), The Proposition (2005) and Romper Stomper (1992), whose graphic depictions of violence are apparently designed to disturb rather than to entertain.
However, what I think makes Wolf Creek such an effective film is the way it utilises certain cinematic techniques while deviating from traditional horror narrative conventions in order to create a genuinely unsettling experience. As demonstrated with the aforementioned Australian horror films of the past, the portrayal of violence in gory extremes does not necessarily achieve a sense of tension and fear. Whereas some people see the violence in the film as gratuitous, I think that the film cleverly exploits a small amount of on-screen violence to create very violent scenarios and a thoroughly grim, disconcerting atmosphere. For example, the torture-shed sequence is possibly the most violent scene in the entire film, yet the violence comes more in the form of threats and taunts rather than in physical harm. However, through unflinchingly focusing the camera on Kristy the frame is all-consumed by her agony, the audience is denied their instinctive need to look away from the character’s suffering, a need which is often catered to in horror films through the use of a pan or cut-away. Instead, through the refusal to let its audience look away from the horror before them, Wolf Creek leaves nothing to the imagination, yet at the same time, by torturously prolonging the fate of the characters, forces the viewer to imagine the extent to which the violence against them will be carried out. Personally, the film never quite reached the violent pinnacle I was expecting it to, but my constant questioning of “When will this stop? How much further will this go?” made for a very difficult, unsettling viewing experience right up until the resolution.
Furthermore, I believe that the sense of unease that the film evokes owes to its deviance from traditional horror narrative conventions. The film has received criticism for what seems to be a very unusual narrative structure, which involves a steady, drawn-out (perhaps to the point of banality) first act which establishes the trivial realities of the characters’ and their relationships with one another, followed by a violent, climactic second half. It seems an axiom of traditional horror films that the protagonist, whom the audience identifies with the most, will eventually, often through the aid of authoritarian intervention, escape death and be victorious over the antagonist, who is in turn destroyed. But Wolf Creek feels somewhat segmented and disjointed, more like two polarised halves than a traditional, causal three-act structure. Similarly, the fate of the characters is arbitrary, rather than determined by their individual strength or will to succeed or the degree to which the audience identifies with them – as is otherwise the case is most horror films. The film ends abruptly, with the least-developed character escaping, the two main characters dead and Mick (whose back-story still remains a mystery) still at large – a sense of incompleteness resounds. Therefore, just as the film denies the viewer the instinctive need to look away from the violence, so too does it deny the viewer their basic need for resolution and the satisfaction that comes from seeing the protagonist beat the antagonist as a result of their struggle. But just as McLean asserts that this creates a much more truthful statement about the world we live in, I too think that by deviating from the narrative structure that audiences are used to, the film portrays the events of the film in a way that is much closer to how the events are likely to unfold in real-life: our lives do not conform to three-act structures, and sometimes evil gets away unpunished. Or as McLean eloquently puts it: “Life isn’t predictable, why should a movie always be?” 11
I think many cynics of Wolf Creek emphasise the film’s violence at the expense of recognizing what is ultimately an amazing cinematic achievement. Contrary to what many think, I believe the focus of the film is not violence for violence’s sake, but the generation of unbearable tension and suspense through the cinematic representation of violence. For this reason I believe that the violence, while certainly graphic, is not gratuitous, in the sense that every violent moment in the film is necessary, perhaps even crucial, to the creation of tension and evoking the fear and suspense that it aims to – to censor the violence in this film would ruin what makes this film so effective and unique. From the brilliant, naturalistic performances of the actors, to the technical mastery of the director and crew, to the rare ability to hold the audience in a constant state of fear and suspense from beginning to end – Wolf Creek is a finely crafted film, and should be recognized as a great achievement in Australian cinema.
Critical Review References:
Bibliography of other information sources:
Empire Magazine (Australian edition), February 2006, p.72
Empire Magazine (Australian edition), December 2005, p.18, written by Matt Coyte.
‘Wolf Creek: Odds and Ends’, X-Press Magazine, Issue # 977, 3rd November 2005, written by Tim Stewart.
Internet Movie Database
‘Ten Directors to Watch: Greg McLean’, Variety, 18th January 2005, written by Michaela Boland.
Australian Film Commission
Australian Film Industry
BOX OFFICE FIGURES:
‘Wolf Creek makes US top 10’, Sydney Morning Herald, 28th December 2005, written by Daniel Ziffer.