The Australian Outback is a place of infinite possibilities; dating back as far as 80,000 years ago, when Australia’s First Nation’s people preserved their culture through ochre-textured paintings, the Outback has always been a great source for stories. This perpetual need to grapple with – and ultimately define – this immensely untameable stretch of stark desert has forever fuelled our nation's art, from the literature of the 1800's to today's cinematic obsession with the region. The Australian Outback has always intimidated and hypnotised in equal measures, for it is the perfect canvas - desolate, but beautiful - for us to decorate with our dreams, ambitions and at times, nightmares.
To appreciate the significant contribution that the Outback – which covers over 70% of Australia – has made to our national identity, try to imagine any classic Australian film being shot anywhere else; gone are the post-apocalyptic wastelands of George Miller's MAD MAX, Gary Bond's intoxicated descent into madness in Ted Kotcheff's WAKE IN FRIGHT would lose its hallucinatory power, and what would we even call Kriv Stenders' RED DOG? Whether one is escaping from the grave abyss – like the tortured tourists in Greg McLean's WOLF CREEK – or descending deeper into its enchanting endlessness – as captivatingly captured in Warwick Thornton's SWEET COUNTRY – Australia's greatest filmmakers have all attempted to create, question or interpret the deep-seated sense of unease that this alien terrain inherently radiates.
Amid AACTA's range of feature films in competition for 2019, four directors adopted this vast cultural land as their playground to explore stories steeped in redemption, corruption, love and pure bloody evil. Wayne Blair's touching TOP END WEDDING transported traditional rom-com tropes to the remote far north of Australia; Heath Davis' LOCUSTS staged a grimy-nailed neo-western that is as brutal and rugged as its landscapes; the comedic hijinks of Alan Lindsay's THE NAKED WANDERER punctuated its postcard presentation of Western Australia's rural spaces and Mike Green's appropriately named OUTBACK carried its titular territory's historical custom of rebuffing any attempts of foreign propagation.
The rejection of the “outsider” is representative of the white settlers who arrived in Australia long ago, forming the narrative framework for most Outback-set films that've emerged since we've pointed cameras towards Australia's red centre. When the peace and purity of the Badlands is disturbed – whether intentionally or not – by those unfamiliar (city dwellers usually), cataclysmic results can occur. Using the mould of the feel-good rom-com, Wayne Blair decided with TOP END WEDDING, instead of having these two contradictions clash, he'd rather them be wedded. This union is made literal when it comes to the whirlwind romance of Miranda Tapsell and Gwilym Lee, whose pre-marital problems are projected against tourist touchstones like Katherine Gorge and the Tiwi Islands.
It’s the opposite case for the bereaved businessman at the centre of LOCUSTS, whose cruise from busy down-town Sydney to the eerily quiet desolation of Serenity Crossing highlights the town's detachment from society, a lawless location where the only sound following a gunshot is its own thunderous echo. Heath Davis' blood-soaked odyssey of two brothers contending with a blackmailing gang in the wake of their father's suicide boldly illustrates the destructive properties of greed and corruption within these isolated communities, where broken men furiously erase each other before the region can do so itself.
For the sake of raising money for a children's hospital, the trials and tribulations endured by THE NAKED WANDERER aren't quite as severe. A snake bite and a jellyfish sting provide sufficient warning for Angus McLaren, but they're nothing compared to the experiences faced by the American visitors in Mike Green's OUTBACK, whose well-intended trek to Uluru takes a tragic turn. These twin expeditions allow their protagonists to forge new identities whilst poignantly getting lost in narrow attempts at finding themselves, “It's not the destination, it's the journey” has never been truer for these folks. When McLaren adopts the headwear and swagger of Chips Rafferty, he mirrors the fashion of the original pioneers and cattle-drivers who also once stared out into the expanse with the same inquisitive nature as our own.
This selection of feature films in competition for the 2019 AACTA Awards might share the same scenery, but each contains a distinctive physical journey – with disparate levels of retribution doled out - across the Outback that reflect their character's oft-fractured state of minds. This landscape allows us to explore visions that range from fantasy to fatalistic, romantic to outrageous. Whatever the perspective may be, it’s a realm where anything seems possible.
Alex Lines is a Perth-based film critic for Film Inquiry.
To learn more about al thirty-four of the feature films in competition for the 2019 AACTA Awards presented by Foxtel, download the Judges Handbook here.