I was living in Sydney at the time of the famed backpacker killings. As the bodies were discovered in the Belangalo Forest south of Sydney, and the biggest murder investigation in Australia's history got under way, the news reports of the way the victims were tortured and murdered were absolutely shocking and profoundly disturbing. The reported perpetrator Ivan Milat was arrested, and ultimately convicted, and he is now serving a life sentence.
Now almost fourteen years later we have a movie that purports to be loosely based on those murders, and whether it should have been made at all is up to the reviewer to decide. Personally I think it's in bad taste, and is disrespectful, not only to the seven victims, but also to the victims' families. Aussie writer/director Greg McLean skewers the original real-life story, setting Woolf Creek in the wilds of the Western Australian desert where three unsuspecting backpackers come across a staggeringly evil Australian boogieman.
Liz (Cassandra Magrath), Kristy (Kestie Morassi) and Ben (Nathan Phillips) leave the tranquil coast of Broome Western Australia a beat-up jalopy after a pointless tequila and Smirnoff Ice binge and head inland, their goal being the Wolf Creek Crater, a giant, circular scar in the earth's crust, the resting place for an ancient meteorite. Their car conks out and their watches stop working when at the same moment help arrives in the form of friendly backwoods giant Mick Taylor (John Jarratt).
It's dark and cold and despite some ominous signs, they allow him to tow the car back to his place, an abandoned mining camp, where he starts to work on the repairs. But is Mick all that he seems? As they sit around the campfire, drinking some of his special rainwater, he jokes about murdering tourists and gutting livestock. Next thing we know, Liz wakes up bound and gagged in a room that makes a dungeon look appealing, and is separated from her friends.
The rest of the film is a sadistic cat and mouse game in which Mick seeks and destroys his prey in the most vicious and gory fashion, with McLean seriously stretching the limitations of what is acceptable cinematic entertainment. Yes, the film is suspenseful and it's stylishly done, but it's also somewhat nasty and mean-spirited. There are some gorgeous shots of Australia's northern deserts with McLean manipulating nature so that it starts out as a positive force and then turning ominous with rain cloud formations. Francois Tetaz's creepy score also heightens the atmosphere.
Judgments aside, the real reason to see Woolf Creek is John Jarrett's over-the-top performance as the evil Mick. The actor has obviously aged a bit since the height of his fame in the mid-1970's, but he's lost nothing of his earthy sex appeal. With his icy stare, scratchy beard and cackling laugh, this is a monster without an ounce of human compassion that has made it his life's work to murder unsuspecting tourists.
Whatever quasi-social commentary McLean throws in about the nature of pure evil and the need to track down these people, who can get away with almost anything in the isolation of Australia's outback, nothing can escape the fact that Woolf Creek is a chilling and disturbing film that tries to recount one of the darker periods in Australian criminal history. Mike Leonard April 06.