A History Of Violence

Every critic has his or her biases. For example, I’m disinclined to like any film in which a character’s priorities are deemed out of whack because their cell phone goes off at inopportune moments. (Unless the phone goes off in movie theater. Then they suck.) It’s a cheap form of shorthand and increasingly irrelevant; everyone has cell phones for personal and/or business use these days and the little fuckers are going to go off once in awhile in a bad spot. Doesn’t make anyone evil. (Latest culprit: Sarah Jessica-Parker in The Family Stone.)

On the other hand, I’m virtually guaranteed to like two particular types of films: (1) Stories of unrequited passion in which the love between two people is stifled by the tacit disapproval of society-at-large. (Favorites: The Age Of Innocence, In The Mood For Love, Far From Heaven/All That Heaven Allows/Ali: Fear Eats The Soul.) (2) Horror films that put an emphasis on realistic, visceral terror. (Favorites: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last House On The Left, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, The Devil’s Rejects.) This Christmas has brought us a gem from each category: Brokeback Mountain and the Australian thriller Wolf Creek, which counts as one hell of a nasty piece of counter-programming. With few exceptions, critics have rallied around the former, which seems to me a certain (and deserving) Best Picture winner. But Wolf Creek is being treated, save for a handful of advocates (namely, Slant critics Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager, who put it on their Top 10 lists), like the proverbial lump of coal in our Christmas stockings—crude, tasteless, gratuitously vicious, even immoral.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even a genre standard like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, widely regarded as a masterpiece today, was just as widely derided when it was first released. To some, this kind of horror realism offers little but unredeemed sadism: The victims are in real danger and real pain and there’s no safety net for the audience, no assurance that lives will be spared and order restored. For detractors, the big question is always “why.” Why the torture? Why the sadism? Why does a film exist for no reason other than to rub our faces in extreme violence? I like to answer those questions with one of my own: Why does the violence in Hollywood action films and other entertainments go uncommented upon while films like Wolf Creek are singled out for derision? One swipe of the giant ape’s hand in King Kong results in several times more casualties than those in Wolf Creek; all that the latter does is make each of them count. It’s punished for reminding us of just how horrific violence can be.

All that said, clearly Wolf Creek may be too intense for some viewers and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for skipping out on an undeniably unpleasant moviegoing experience. For the rest of us, Greg McLean’s skillfully crude debut, about a trio of amiable young thrill-seekers who get snared in the Outback, has much to recommend: A first half that quietly gains menace as it aligns our sympathy with these characters, a tense second act in which the three heroes accept a tow from a jovial country bumpkin who’s slow to reveal his intentions (ending in perhaps the year’s most heart-sinking cut), and the raw desperation and anguish that sets realistic horror films apart from their genre peers. If you have the stomach for it—and keep in mind, that’s an awfully big “if”—this is nauseatingly essential viewing.