[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
Killing Ground (2017) is a grim, upsetting bit of cinematic business from Australia, and director Damien Power. The film is a superb example of traditional “Savage Cinema” standards, and involves two doomed camping excursions in the woods that -- over a period of four days -- both fall prey to amoral hunters.
The film’s elevated sense of artistry -- with pervasive cross-cutting deliberately taking the audience from one doomed expedition to the other -- helps to mitigate some of the film’s darkest moments.
Still, Killing Ground is a very powerful, very disturbing film, and it ends with the suggestion, terribly, that a human infant has been left behind in the woods...to be eaten by wild pigs. It’s an especially horrible turn of events, since, for at least a while, audiences are left with the hope that the child has managed to survive the terror intact.
In terms of Savage Cinema standards, Killing Ground hits one of the favorite obsessions of the sub-genre pretty hard (and very effectively, too boot).
And that trope is, specifically, that through extreme adversity and terror, the protagonists learn their true natures.
Here, Ian (Ian Meadows), a man studying to be a doctor, proves his inherent moral weakness. His girlfriend, Samantha (Harriet Dyer), by contrast, rises to the occasion and demonstrates her real strength and power.
In this case, those two discoveries are in direct opposition. Samantha not only learns of her innate strength, she learns too, of her boyfriend’s total weakness. He isn’t someone she can count on when the chips are down. In a way, the set-up is not all that different from what we encountered in last week’s entry, Eden Lake. A professional young man and woman tread unwisely from the safety of civilization into nature, and encounter barbarous behavior of people less “evolved” than they are.
Killing Ground includes rape, the (off-screen) death of a child, and the murder and torture of innocent families and individuals, so there’s no doubt that it lives up to Savage Cinema label, but the quality that actually makes the film memorable is the sense, often found in these films, that life is meaningless, and death just one “wrong turn” down the road ahead.
At some point, fate has it in for us.
“We’re going to go for a little ride.”
Young physician-in training Ian and his girlfriend Samantha decide to go camping for the weekend. En route, she quizzes him on his knowledge of anatomy. When they get lost, however, he asks a stranger at a gas station for directions. The stranger suggests Gungilee Falls as a perfect camping site, and provides directions.
When Ian and Samantha arrive at that location, they see another tent perched on the beach, but no sign of the campers who put it up. They set up their tent and start to enjoy themselves. Meanwhile, the stranger, German, and his friend, close in, ready for a rerun of a murder spree.
It turns out, that just days earlier these hunters killed the family camping on the beach, after raping the teenage daughter, Em (Tiarnie Coupland).
Now, the strangers must erase all evidence of their crime by committing another terrible act.
Early in Killing Ground, Samantha tells a story about why she has never gone camping, at least since high school. She knew a boy whose tent caught on fire. This story suggests, perfectly, just how random fate is. A young man, with an entire future laid out before him, instead wasforced to reckon at a young age with his mortality.
This story sets the tone for the action of the film.
It suggests, perhaps, that man proposes but God (or nature, if you prefer...) disposes. All our plans and dreams may come to precisely nothing if we take a wrong turn, and head down a blind, dead end.
The story of the empty tent, and the destroyed family, only reinforces, strongly, this sense of cruel, purposeless fate. Young and vibrant Em goes camping with her parents, but suffers from bad dreams She sleeps outside her tent because of those dreams. Her parents go for a walk one day, and discuss “imagery rehearsal therapy” to help her overcome her nightmares. Specifically, this form of therapy will help the 16-year old “rewrite” her nightmares so they don’t come to terrifying ends.
This story, treated with great importance to Em’s (doomed parents) is a meditation on something that ultimately, doesn’t matter at all. Em ends up living a nightmare, raped and murdered by the hunters in the woods. All her parents’ plans for her future are immaterial. She has no future.
Nor do her parents.
Like the boy in the tent fire remembered in story by Samantha, Em’s fate is a reminder that tomorrow is not promised to us. We make grand plans -- career, family, retirement, vacations, even -- yet there is no guarantee beyond this moment; beyond the present.
The forces of destruction in the movie, the two hunters, are indeed terrifying too. They are sociopaths and therefore lack empathy.
They see people for how they can use them (Em, for sex, whether she wants to participate or not), and do not have the same boundaries as civilized people do. They give no consideration for Em or the infant. Being young and innocent isn’t a free pass to survive. These ignorant, unwashed brutes don’t value any lives, or any hopes and dreams, save their own. They don’t register anyone else as human.
They are completely and utterly conscience-less.
And yes, at the risk of stoking controversy, I believe that this plot-line is a deliberate commentary on modern hunters and hunting. I know hunting is a way of life for many. I realize that there is a whole hunting culture, especially in the South (where I live). I don't mean to disrespect anybody or their lifestyle, or tradition by exploring this facet of the film.
I would say that Killing Ground trenchantly comments on the pervasiveness of a pastime that involves killing another living being, when such killing is no longer, strictly-speaking, necessary. We live in a culture of abundance and plenty, so hunting isn't often a matter of necessity anymore; of having to kill to feed the family. Hunting is now known as a "sport." It is done for pleasure.
And yet there is nothing sporting about the guns used in this pastime, in 2017. It's not like it's an equal match between the instincts of an animal, and an AR-15.
But once you put a bullet in a living breathing animal, like a deer, is it easier to put a bullet into a living, breathing person; a woman, or a child? That's an underpinning in this film. The hunters see people as prey; they derive pleasure from raping and killing them.
The real question to consider here: does the modern act of hunting teaches us, on a basic level, to de-value the lives of other beings?
Because, make no mistake: the animals that modern hunters kill with their high-tech guns are capable of feeling pain. They bleed and suffer just like human beings do. If we can play God and end an animal's life, why is it different to end a human's life? These are the uncomfortable questions that Killing Ground, inevitably, raises.
The men in this film are so accustomed to killing that they have no compunctions about murder when it comes to women and even children. A camp site isn't a vacation area, it's the titular killing ground, one that the men return to...for satisfaction -- for pleasure -- and for sport. There's good hunting there, after all.
If modern, well-equipped hunters kill does or bucks without remorse -- as sport -- is it such a stretch for people like the villains in this film to beat a baby in the head? Hunters justify killing deer by talking about over-population, and matters like that. The hunters here are ex-cons who don't want to go back to jail. They have an easy justification, as well. They can't leave behind evidence.
And again, this is why I love horror films. They dare to raise matters and ask questions about things we tacitly accept, every day. They challenge us to rethink our ideals. They challenge us to examine and then re-examine our values.
Killing Ground features a high degree of tact, which is a necessity for material this grim, and neither the death of the baby, nor the rape of Em are actually seen. Of course, one can argue that by not showing them, Power has made his film all the more effective. We know what occurs, and are left to imagine (and visualize) the worst. It's upsetting.
This is important, because the stakes are so high for Samantha and Ian. The film makes the hunters seem all the more powerful, and death feel all the more inevitable, by telling two stories (in separate time periods) on the same hunting grounds. We know what the hunters are capable of, based on the suffering and deaths of the first family, and therefore know, as the film winds towards its conclusion, that the young couple can expect no sympathy, no quarter.
When faced with a situation like that, a person might collapse and surrender, as Ian does, thinking of no one and nothing but himself and his own survival. Or one might react like Samantha, who fights like Hell for herself, for Ian, and for the baby. Even when she is in extreme jeopardy, and facing her own mortality, Samantha manages to worry for the baby, and for her boyfriend. It turns out, she realizes, Ian doesn’t share those feelings. He runs off to the police, instead of helping her, or the baby.
Instead of fighting, in the moment, he flees to civilization to let others fight for him.
One might argue this course of action. One might say, unemotionally, that Ian did the right thing: letting the authorities handle the hunters. That act accords with law. But emotionally, his act is one of pure, shameful cowardice. He leaves his girlfriend to be raped by one of the hunters, knowing full well that she might be killed before he can return. When he sees her alive, the shame is written all over Ian's face. And Samantha, without saying anything, knows exactly the kind of man she is in love with.
The cruelest moment in the film, however, involves the death of hope. The baby, who -- as children always do in films of this type -- personifies the future. He has been battered and beaten, and dropped in the woods. But the body disappears for a time, and Samantha hopes against hope that Ian, a doctor, has rescued the baby, and saved his life. During the film's climax, however, he tells her he left the baby’s body in the woods too.
The baby’s ultimate disappearance, therefore, has no plausible explanation unless one remembers the exposition early in the film about how the area is occupied by wild pigs, who apparently eat anything and everything left behind by campers. We can put two and two together, and realize that the boars got the baby.
In this case, we can only hope the child died before the hungry animals took him.
Again and again, people ask me: how can I watch and like a movie like this? One with extreme violence, and death? Featuring rape and the death of innocence.
My answer is that films like Killing Ground don’t sugar coat human existence. They don’t wrap it up in bullshit, like happy endings. The cavalry doesn’t ride over the hill, just in time, to save someone who is good, or young, or innocent, at least not frequently. These films make us question our choices, our morality, and our traditions. And they don't try to be Oscar-bait in the process.
Films like Killing Ground remind us of how much of our lives is but an abstract construct; a delusion that we erect and rigorously maintain.
We believe in civilization, but once outside of populated areas, civilization is just an idea.
And not everybody carries the same moral code, when freed from the boundaries of civilization. Secondly, as noted above, Nature -- or God -- is under no obligation obey our self-proclaimed rules for behavior.
The first shot of Killing Ground is of an empty camp site on the beach; an insertion of man’s world upon nature. We set up our camps, our rules, and our philosophies in nature, but as I said, Nature itself is under no obligation to follow our edicts. We can establish a foothold in Nature, but we can't beat it.
This strange dichotomy is seen in Ian’s character too. By nature, he cares about himself. He's selfish. We see this in his extreme cowardice. But in civilization, he has selected a vocation in the medical field in which he is supposed to care about others. That ideal, however, is an inch deep.
Which value wins out, when push comes to shove?
Civilization -- Hippocratic oaths and the like -- are but lovely constructs that we cling to so that we can, in some way, delude ourselves about the finite nature of human life.
So Killing Ground is indeed a harrowing film, but it tells us something important about our existence. It raises questions about the rules we think define us, and our civilization.
Out in the woods, in nature, there is hunter and prey, and that's it.