The 90s saw Australian filmmakers enjoying worldwide success
with a series of offbeat comedies that celebrated outsider status and often
mixed challenging subject matter with laughs.
As inventive as these films were, their success overshadowed the dark
history of Australian cinema, Walkabout and
Picnic at Hanging Rock supplanted by Priscilla and Muriel in the cultural memory.
But in 2005 that repressed history resurfaced in one of the most
disturbing films to come from down under, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek. Dismissed by
many critics as misogynistic torture porn, the film is in fact a compendium of
filmic tropes that simultaneously resurrects and comments on Australia’s peculiar
One of the most successful and iconic figures of Australian
cinema is Crocodile Dundee, the
raffish survivalist bushman played by Paul Hogan. In the years following the success of the
Dundee franchise, other Australian directors would achieve commercial—and
sometimes aesthetic—success with such offbeat comedies as Flirting, Strictly Ballroom,
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and
of course Muriel’s Wedding, directed
by Hogan. Dealing with topics that had
been rarely addressed in comedy, such as racism, gay and transgender
identities, and disability (not to mention ABBA), these films also embraced a
garish and camp aesthetic that was refreshingly at odds with American and
European preoccupation with upward mobility.
But however much these films challenged certain conventions
of the comedy genre, they arguably contributed more to the worldwide success of
their stars (Nicole Kidman, Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, Toni Collette, and
director Baz Luhrman) than they did to Australian cinema. The same might be said of the path taken by Dundee’s
demonic doppelganger Mad Max, who launched Mel Gibson into stardom. While the original 1979 film was an inventive
transformation of the New Wave’s darker stylings into irresistible grindhouse
fare, as the franchise gained commercial success and higher budgets, it devolved
into the disastrously overblown theatricals of Thunder-Dome.
On its release, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek was regarded by most serious critics as slasher shlock,
yet it can also be read as a disturbing treatise on Australian film and the
peculiar cultural and geographical history that underpins it. Certainly this film is not recommended for
the queasy, but it could also be considered less a celebration of violence than an indictment of it. By exploring the
relationship between character and setting, it offers a powerful
meditation on the causes of violence, one that has resonance well beyond its
The film begins in Muriel
territory, with three twenty-somethings partying poolside before piling into a
car the next morning. Liz and Christy
are both British tourists, and their Sydney pal Ben is accompanying them on a road
trip on their way to the airport in Queensland.
They travel the forbidding spaces of the Great Northern Highway, which
rolls through the arid western deserts with only rare interruptions by a roadhouse
or rest-stop. When they do finally hit a
gas station, they are harassed by a group of slack-jawed yokels, who threaten
the women with a “gang-bang.” Ben tries
to man up on the occasion, but it is a role he is clearly uncomfortable with:
he is feminized, and the women are verbally objectified and victimized. The film will continue to explore the ways in
which gender is as much a product of cultural context as biology.
Soon after this disturbing encounter, they arrive at their
first destination: Wolf Creek, site of a massive asteroid crater. As they walk around the eerie terrain, the
atmosphere becomes reminiscent of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1972), in which the students and teachers
of a girl’s boarding school go for a holiday outing at a strange and ominous
rock formation, where several of the girls mysteriously disappear. The dream-like rhythms and surreal landscape
of Wolf Creek evoke a similar sense
of the uncanny, and likewise hint at the spiritual traditions of Australia’s
aboriginal population, so closely linked to the continent’s unique
ecosystem. This dreamy atmosphere culminates
in the travelers’ watches stopping simultaneously, suggesting a spiritual or
astral influence on the dire events that follow.
Such scenes are significantly enhanced by the film’s
astonishingly inventive sound design.
François Tétaz composed a score woven out of a collection of field
recordings made from the sound of power lines eerily humming and vibrating in the
desert winds. When these rise to muted
crescendos, they vaguely resemble the conventional horror movie “stingers” that
punctuate scare scenes, but with a subtle organicism rooted in the ambient
When they try to leave, their car refuses to start, and as
they wait through the night for the unlikely arrival of another visitor they
are “rescued” by a rugged frontiersman, Mick, who bears more than a passing
resemblance to Crocodile Dundee, but one badly gone to seed and stripped of all
his rugged charms. The resemblance is
made explicit later on, after an hours-long tow back to Mick’s compound. As they sit around a campfire before their
good Samaritan goes to work on their car, the gap between rural and urban,
Australian and English, goes from awkward to excruciating, until Ben tries to
break the tension by quoting Dundee’s famous line, “You call that a knife? Now
that’s a knife!” which Mick doesn’t quite get, and assumes he’s being
And, in a sense, he is.
Earlier in this uncomfortable encounter Ben tells him he’s from Sydney,
to which Mick replies, “Poofter capital of Australia!” This further hit on Ben’s threatened
masculinity can be seen as motivating his later insult, intended to mark Mick
as a redneck, a bumpkin, a rural relic, lost in the past of a modernizing
nation of which Sydney is the urban symbol.
But the nation’s repressed history takes its revenge, as Mick drugs them
with what he claims to be “rainwater from the top end.” Thinking they are partaking of the landscape’s
natural purity, they are in fact being prepared for slaughter. This irony is anticipated in the campfire
conversation when Ben enthuses about Mick’s life in the open air, his freedom
in nature, to which Mick bluntly replies: “What the fuck are you talking about?” Idealization of nature is a product of the
urban middle class, not of those who scrabble a living off the landscape.
That campfire exchange, and the class and gender politics
that frame it, is crucial for understanding the violence that follows. While the women are tortured, they also fight
against, and momentarily escape, their captor.
It should be noted that much of the film’s violence occurs off-screen,
though Mick’s gleeful sadism and Kristy’s abject fear create an unbearable
sense of dread. During their escape the
film recalls another great film from the Australian New Wave, Wake in Fright, which makes the
expansive landscapes of the Outback into a paradoxically claustrophobic space
of dread. Threat lurks everywhere in the
wide-open desert spaces. Holes appear in
their getaway vehicle, inexplicably, until we realize they are made by a rifle
fired from hundreds of yards away. As in
the Mad Max films, the freedom of the
open road is turned into a space of entrapment and violence.
This is the end of the frontier. The exploitation of the landscape and
near-genocide of the native peoples of Australia is supplanted by a more
mysterious, surreptitious form of violence.
The film opens with the vague and sinister words: “30,000 people are
reported missing in Australia every year. 90% are found within a month. Some are never seen again.” Though this is conventional thriller
verbiage, it is also an altogether different vision of the country than that offered
by Baz Luhrmann’s camp epic Australia or
Paul Hogan’s lovable bushman. Like the
great films of the 1970s, Wolf Creek
de-romanticizes the landscape, and reminds us that the past is never past, and
that violence can erupt from the most seemingly remote places.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.