Nobody does bleak brutality quite like the Aussies. Wolf Creek, Snowtown, Hounds of Love — they all share cruel, sharp edges, staring face first into the void of human hunger for violence and never flinching. Damien Power‘s directorial debut, Killing Ground proudly runs with that torch. It’s unusually unnerving and disturbing, not for high-concept visions of a world gone bad or fantastical on-screen depictions of horror and violence, but for the imposing awareness that this could all actually happen to anybody, anywhere, at any time.
For our heroes, it happens while camping. The already terrible pastime becomes the stuff of nightmares for two families on holiday near Australia’s Gungilee Falls. There’s Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer), a sweet and spirited recently engaged couple escaping lakeside for a romantic retreat, and there’s the Bakers, the family unit headed up by Rob (Julian Garner) and Margaret (Maya Strange), a pair of crunchy granola hippies who bring their teenage daughter (Tiarnie Coupland) and toddler son (Liam Parke) for a little campground guitar plucking and philosophizing. We don’t learn much about them, but we learn enough to like them. These are good people who love each other, which makes it a lot worse when the film starts earning its title and we watch them get tormented, tortured, sexually assaulted, and killed.
Trouble arrives in the form of hunters German (Aaron Pedersen) and Chook (Aaron Glenane), a vicious pair who love laying traps, be it for human prey or the wild pigs that roam the local terrain. The duo arrives to torment our heroes, and it’s immediately clear that we’re watching the action unfold in two timelines, two hunting cycles. As the pieces of the narrative intertwine, it’s obvious which event came first. Power isn’t using dual timelines to establish mystery, but a sense of dread, and because you quickly deduce which family was hit first, every moment they’re on screen feels like waiting for the executioner to strike.
When the killings begin, they’re quick and undignified. There’s no honor in these deaths, only the moment — and it only takes a moment — when a living person becomes a corpse. The moment when hope is snuffed out and a loved one becomes nothing more than a body in the dirt. Power directs the whole thing with a mean streak that will invariably put off certain viewers and the mileage you get out of Killing Ground will depend on how you like your horror. If you prefer slashers or the supernatural, escapist tales that get the heart pumping, then Killing Ground may leave you cold. But if you like the kind of horror that sits leaden in your gut and curdles there — the kind of nauseous panic that starts to spread when you see real life acts of evil splashed across the news — then Killing Ground will get under your skin and stay there for a bit.
The payoff for the torment comes when the victims start fighting back, though never quite in the ways you expect. Movies tell us differently, but most folks aren’t heroes or cowards. Most folks fall somewhere in between; they do the right thing for the wrong reasons or the wrong thing for the right reasons. They run when they should fight, and they don’t do either particularly well. Killing Ground embraces that, and its characters are more compelling for it. There are reveals of cowardice in the third act that sting with a walloping dose of truthfulness and there are moments of bravery that feel just as honest.
Ultimately though, the payoff is pretty scarce and the cost is very high. Killing Ground carves out a little hole out of your spirit with moments of violence and helplessness, and it offers no salve in the way of motivation for its killers. You will walk out of Killing Ground feeling like you’ve taken some hits. The film’s most effective moments are born out of its simplicity but because the film doesn’t have much to say, it sometimes feels like cruelty for cruelty’s sake. When the ambient dread of the dual timelines is extinguished, the film fizzles into a straightforward thriller that feels a bit too familiar.
Killing Ground is invested in violence. It’s not exploitative — the deeds are matter of fact, often done in the distance, and the camera is often focused more on the victims than the act itself, but that doesn’t make it any less the point or any easier to watch. Power is unflinching in his investigation of the subject, but unfortunately, he comes back with little to say on the matter. All the same, Killing Ground is well made. It will shake you up and take you for a ride, it will upset you and make you question yourself, but it certainly won’t offer you any relief.