On Killing Ground's over-familiar hunters and their over-familiar prey
Killing Ground IFC Midnight
Director: Damien Power
Screenplay: Damien Power
Starring: Harriet Dyer, Ian Meadows, Aaron Pedersen, Aaron Glenane, Tiarnie Coupland, Julian Garner and Maya Stange
Rated R / 1 hour, 28 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
Depiction is rarely its own purpose.
There's nothing ostensibly wrong with a movie about two rifle-toting psychopaths murdering couples in the woods, except if all it's about is two rifle-toting psychopaths murdering couples in the woods. Killing Ground gives us exactly, and only, that - with all the empty precision of something that knows its expectations too well, and has nothing else to offer.
The template is so recognizable that we anticipate the "Inspired by True Events..." title card during the closing credits - the cheap justification - only it never comes. No true-crime killers here, just a couple of weekend warriors who do some killing in their spare hours, and a couple of vacationing families unfortunate enough to be camping in the wrong place at the wrong time. The only thing that loosens Killing Ground from the rigid structure of countless similar VOD titles before it (many of them, like this one, Australian productions) is a non-linear structure that introduces one set of targets by placing them next to the abandoned campsite of the previous set. Writer/director Damien Power cuts back and forth between past and present, one narrative playing out with stark inevitability, the other with looming dread. Both, for that matter, play out with an air of predetermination - the former because we've already seen the aftermath, and are only waiting for the play-by-play to unfold in detail; the latter merely because of its juxtaposition with the former.
Screen time is weighted toward the present, as we spend the majority of our attention and emotional bandwidth on young couple Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows), who've just gotten engaged and expect a relaxing night or two at a lakeside camp ground. They discover one party is already there, so they set up camp a good distance away. Except the other campers never show up. Those other campers were an outdoorsy couple - Margaret (Maya Stange) and Rob (Julian Garner), along with their teenage daughter and infant son. The flashbacks focus primarily on the daughter, Em (Tiarnie Coupland), who seems distracted and disengaged, and is the first to catch the eyes of the malevolent, disciplined, stone-cold German (Australian Josh Brolin Aaron Pedersen) and his wild-card of a hunting buddy, Chook (Aaron Glenane). What these two aren't aware of - once they finish with Mom and Dad and have their way with Daughter - is the existence of the infant son, who is found days later wandering around the woods, somehow still alive but close to starving, by Sam and Ian ... who don't take long to figure out that surely they're in grave danger as well.
The film's structure is the closest it gets to a point, as it leverages the couple's carefree assumption of safety and tranquility against physical evidence to the contrary, narrowing the gap between the two until the inevitable rude awakening finally arrives. Aloneness itself is the force encroaching on Sam and Ian. The sudden absence of even an illusory safety net - the cushion of civilization, even just one tent's worth, within shouting distance - makes all the difference. The abandonment (for lack of a better term) of that neighboring campsite portends a certain peril that goes beyond mere isolation. The only thing scarier than that is the lurking feeling that something or someone else is on its way to fill the unexpected void.
If I were being charitable, I could extend all of that into a driving theme. But Killing Ground deserves no such charity. Conceptually, it sounds much more impressive than it plays in practice. The events of the film, as depicted, speak for themselves only in their most straightforward terms. Power's filmmaking, while competent, adds no perspective of its own. This is the kind of example that gives similarly themed movies - and by association various strains of horror as a whole - a bad name. People often gripe about the purpose of movies premised on murder and abduction, especially when stripped of the nervy fun and supernatural tenor of a slasher flick in favor of grim seriousness and starkly realistic acts of violence. As always, it's the movie's job to create its purpose; this one never does. This is a movie senseless enough to match the crimes it depicts.
Even the structural utility wears off once we realize the two stories have ultimately little relevance to one another, aside from establishing the killers' pattern. None of the victims register as characters; the closest we get is the teenaged Em, who not coincidentally is also the quietest, the least willing to explain who she is. She's not stuck in the same rigid functions as the rest of the characters - happy couple about to embark on a life together; happy older couple having just welcomed a new member of the family - but is rather begrudgingly along for the ride. She's not an angsty teen, just an aloof one; she roams around as an intriguing, enigmatic, closed-off presence, without a specific role ... at least until the movie rather nastily gives her one.
Much of the movie's failure comes down to its inability to figure out what to do with its characters - to figure out why these two killers, in particular, are worth 90 minutes of our time; whether or not to psychoanalyze them, and how much; to decipher why, in particular, these two sets of campers are interesting or tragic beyond their predetermined role as victims. The filmmakers have few answers. Early in the film, Power provides a certain sense of equilibrium, giving us a scene identifying these once and future killers as they spend a night out drinking, sometime in between the first sequence of attacks and the second. The scene establishes their personalities: Chook, the dumber and more boisterous of the two, awkwardly hits on uninterested young women, while German tries to keep a low profile. Turns out Chook also happens to have incriminating photos of his recent escapades on his phone - a fact that leads to a confrontation in a restaurant bathroom, a confrontation that leads to Chook's phone being smashed to pieces. The characters are established, but seemingly only to prevent them from being mere faceless killers. It's perfunctory, as if the film wants to give them psychological profiles but isn't committed enough to the idea to see it through.
The hunted are no more interesting. They're languidly thrown into action, fulfilling their obligation to a narrative that is as obvious as it is purposeless. The killers hunt and chase, the victims run and hide and occasionally fight back. They do these things out of obligation. All of this mayhem is horrible, the movie supposes. I guess? And scary maybe? But mostly it's indifferent. That detachment might theoretically work if what we were seeing was uniquely disquieting, or unusual. But Power's images are nothing if not familiar.
Moralizing in a movie like this would be too obvious, even redundant. Doing more or less the exact opposite is even worse. Killing Ground gives us the same types of killers and victims that have peppered this subgenre for years, in what amounts to a crisp replication of a tired format, giving no thought to why, or if, any of it matters. This is a movie devoid of value.