Aussie Rules: Five Outback classics while we wait for Goldstone

Native Son: Aaron Pederson plays detective Jay Swan in Ivan Sven's outback noir, Goldstone.
Native Son: Aaron Pederson plays damaged detective Jay Swan, in Ivan Sen’s forthcoming outback noir, Goldstone.

Boiling hot, dry as a bone, massive. It’ll kill you if you forget your water bottle.

The Outback is back big style in Goldstone, Ivan Sen’s taught follow-up to his highly praised 2013 thriller, Mystery Road.

Aron Pederson returns as Aboriginal detective Jay Swan, more damaged and conflicted than before and pissed as a skunk, this time butting heads with Exorcist-eyed Jacki Weaver, the scariest woman in Australian cinema (see Animal Kingdom to get a measure of the threat she can radiate with just a glance).

The Outback’s the Star

But as admirable as the performances are in writer/director/cinematographer/ editor/scorer (yes, he’s a bloody genius!) Sen’s brooding slice of ‘Outback Noir’, arguably as big a star in the action is the arid, continental expanse of rock and dust that makes up 70 per cent of the Oz land mass.

And only 3 per cent of the population live there. So some pretty dark stuff can go on beyond the bush and who’d know about it?

Any road, while we’re waiting for Goldstone to swelter its way into theatres, here are five more flicks from Down Under where the Outback’s as big a player as the players.

Wake in Fright (Ted Kocheff, 1971)

The title refers to that frozen jump awake you make the morning after yet another heavy night on the lash, only to remember with creeping dread all the soul-evisceratingly contemptible things you did the night before.

Young teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) plies his trade in a one-horse school in a two-shack hole in the parched middle of nowhere. He heads out on holiday with plans never to return, but first he must survive a night in ‘The Yabba’, a god-forsaken mining town and site of his morning flight to Sydney and sanity.

But when he loses all his cash in a bet, The Yabba sucks him mercilessly into a drink-fueled Kafkaesque nightmare.

‘WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE ABOUT THE YABBA?’ incredulously roar the brutes that pour endless grog down Grant’s neck, as his moral compass collapses in front of his bloodshot eyes. (Donald Pleasance in premium whacko form gets a special mention as the town’s degenerate, alcoholic medic.)

Warning: If you have a special fondness for kangaroos, or any feelings at all about kangaroos, DO NOT watch this film.

Walkabout (Nic Roeg, 1971)

Dads, this is what happens to your kids if you drive them out to the outback for a picnic, then go mad and shoot yourself and leave the little blighters stranded. In Nic Roeg’s kaleidoscopic childhood adventure though, the kids do pretty well, considering.

Here, the outback, rather than being portrayed as simply scorched and inert, seems to throb with life and possibility. And once legendary David Gulpilil turns up to help the kids with the basics, digging down to water and catching them food, well, they’ve got no worries.

We watched this as a family and my kids loved it. There’s clearly something appealing to them about the idea of being left to their own devices on a desert PGL holiday – even if your dad does have to blow his head off to facilitate the experience.

Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013)

Despite the maxed-out temperatures, Sen’s 2013 desert tale of corruption, murder, racism, drugs and social disintegration is as cool as its central character, indigenous rookie murder cop, Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson).

Nobody says much because everyone has secrets and they all seem so flamin’ weary of the whole situation, but the tension is always a scratch away under the scorched surface and builds inexorably towards a scoped-rifle desert shoot-out which delivers entirely justified genre thrills in spades. 

Throw in a tight-lipped performance from leather-faced Tony Barry as Jay’s racist superior, Sarge, and you have an archetypal link back to Chips Rafferty’s flat-faced turn as The Yabba’s phlegmatic Seargant Jock Crawford in Wake in Fright. Scarey.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot, 1994)

The road, the Outback, a coach and three drag queens who look like a trio of Las Vegas flamingos on acid.

‘Limey’ Terrance Stamp, Hugo Weaving in non-menacing mode and Guy Pearce way before he lost his memory, prove the outback’s not all about desiccation, roo hunts and death; there are sensitive types out there too. Go ahead, sing it – ‘Finally, you came along…’

Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002)

The Outback is a place to hide, a home, an expanse to escape into and offer asylum rather than to dread, in this heartbreaker of a movie.

Aussie screen stalwart David Gulpilil is back again, this time as aboriginal tracker Moodoo, who skillful as he is, fails to catch the three escaped ‘half-caste’ girls as they trek 1,500 miles along the outback’s rabbit proof fence, on the run from the state’s so-called ‘re-education’ facility for mixed race children.

Visually stunning and a tragic tale of love, loss and the endemic racism that still plagues Australian society, RPF is based on a true story and is a must to watch with the kids, if you haven’t already. In fact it brought tears to our eyes.

Incredibly, the racist policies portrayed in the film were operational until 1970. Bit like the Catholic Church and the Magdalen Laundries, then. Except the last one of those was closed in 1996…


Why not watch Wake in Fright here for £2.50? After all, ‘WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE ABOUT THE YABBA?’

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