The basics of Killing Ground are as old as Deliverance. So, uh, 1972, I suppose? When you’re out in the wilderness, beyond the range of a 911 call, it sure is scary that some psycho could try to get you! In the absence of civilization, there is no check on murderous chaos, right? Dog eat dog. Survival of the fittest. Plenty of movies play on this fear. It’s often crass, but effective. Backcountry and Blue Jay are recent dingy little horror movies to that effect. Wild brought it up in a wonderfully unexpected way. Australia’s brutal contribution was Wolf Creek, a horror movie with an uncompromising serrated edge so effective that it spawned a (not very good) sequel and a TV series (that I have no desire to see).
First-time Australian filmmaker Damien Power revisits the same territory in Killing Ground. It’s nothing if not familiar. When you’re out in the wilderness, beyond the range of a 911 call, it sure is scary that some psycho could try to get you! But Power ruthlessly stakes his own claim.
Right up front, he gets the fundamentals right. He doesn’t force us to endure bad actors or annoying characters. Instead, he draws us in and gradually make us uneasy. As he introduces likeable people, he dripfeeds sinister details into the story. Why are two characters discussing information that would be relevant to dismemberment? Why does an anecdote about camping relate to being burned alive? Why does a character chronically suffer from terrible nightmares? And are these questions even important? Killing Ground isn’t content to jump out at you. It wants under your skin.
But that’s just competent filmmaking. Power still has a few tricks up his sleeve that set Killing Ground apart from merely brutal horror movies. The first is how he plays with the trope of characters doing stupid things so the movie won’t end yet. So many horror movies would be shorter if the protagonist just called the police, or ran for help, or picked up the gun, or didn’t open the door, or turned on the lights, or beaned the killer with a rock a few more times just to be sure. So many horror movies lean so heavily on smart monsters and dumb victims. But Killing Ground wants you to understand that dire circumstance do different things to different people. The enormity of some situations means there is no correct course of action. Sometimes heroism isn’t even an option. Sometimes choices aren’t even an option. There’s a certain kind of horror in powerlessness and inevitability. When Killing Ground is over, that will be its point.
Power’s second trick is how he presents violence. What’s even worse than sensationalizing violence is presenting it dispassionately. Violence should be accompanied by a horrific sound effect, or a thunderous musical note, or over-the-top gore. It should be presented with a sense of outrage. It is outrageous, so it should be outrageous! But the horrific irony is that’s probably not how it actually happens. Instead, it just happens. This sickly matter-of-factness is worse than lurid excess, because the unfamiliarity of lurid excess gives us a safe buffer zone. There’s nothing like an overfull blood squib or gratuitious CG decapitation to relieve tension. There’s nothing like the outrageous to remind you that it’s just a movie. There’s nothing like that in Killing Ground. Power will have none of it.
Power’s most effective trick — and what ultimately elevates Killing Ground above its rotely effective cousins — is how he plays with structure. Like the brilliant Shimmer Lake, the very good Dunkirk, and especially the uneven Nocturnal Animals, which Killing Ground most resembles, this is a movie that plays with what you know and when you know it. Time is used as an unconventional tool to tweak a conventional story. The concept of spoilers is turned on its head because the storyteller shows you things you won’t fully understand until he wants you to understand them. Are spoilers spoilers when they’re part of the storytelling?
In Shimmer Lake, this was in the service of humor. In Dunkirk, this was in the service of tension. In Noctural Animals, this was in the service of a surprise revenge story. And in Killing Ground, this is in the service of dread. Like Powers’ dispassionate approach to violence, it’s downright cruel. That’s not necessarily a compliment. I don’t necessarily recommend Killing Ground.
It’s worth quoting Alfred Hitchcock’s conversation with Francois Truffaunt, by way of explaining that while I didn’t enjoy Killing Ground, I admired it.
There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean. We are now having an innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens and then all of a sudden, Boom! There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.
Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is quarter to one. In these conditions the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen, You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and its about to explode!
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.
With Killing Ground, Damien Power has provided us with an hour and a half of dread. This is a horror movie about what inevitability does to people, including those of us watching the movie. Frankly, it’s kind of a dick move.