Reviews, Screen, TV

Wolf Creek season two review: John Jarratt’s great, shit-eating villain returns

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Australian film and television has two great tourism ambassadors called Mick. The first, surname Dundee, famously compared knife sizes with ruffians in New York in the 1980s. The other, surname Taylor, has a more hands-on approach to knives, as the flannie connoisseur antagonist – played with shit-eating glare and pig-like chortle by John Jarratt – of the expanding Wolf Creek universe: two films and two TV series to date, the second television production new to Stan this week.

In their respective worlds, the Micks have opposite objectives; Dundee to fly away and charm overseas folk and Taylor to torture and kill them while manning the fort back home. But they are in essence the same character, with the same purpose: a send-up of the bush derro, for city folk to ogle at – gratified by knowledge they are worlds apart from these atavistic philistines in every way, including location and ideology.

I prefer Taylor to Dundee any day of the week, partly because Paul Hogan’s satire is so base it barely exists in anything other than critical definition: cheap exportable pantomime with no appreciation of what cultural baggage and/or deep-seated notions might be being probed during the cash exchange. But Jarratt, and Wolf Creek creator, writer/director and showrunner Greg McLean (who directs the first two eps of this new series) brazenly politicise their playacting, most pointedly evident in a scene in 2013’s Wolf Creek 2, when Taylor administers his own citizenship test to a “Pommy ponce” strapped to a chair.

In the intro credits sequence in Stan’s new series, sun-washed photographs of Taylor’s victims appear, accompanied by a slow acoustic version of the famous Men at Work song (“where women glow and men plunder”). Songwriter Colin Hay contemplated Australian culture in the same way author Kenneth Cook appreciated rural life in Wake in Fright, or as filmmaker Stephan Elliott did in his off-the-map bogans in Welcome to Woop Woop: less a matter of celebration than a question of what one might want to celebrate and why.

When Mick says to himself, during a pivotal moment in the storyline, “I love a sunburnt country”, all is forgiven.

The series’ three directors (McLean, Kieran Darcy-Smith and Geoff Bennett) take a similar tack, even if their decision to use the song may have hinged on a rudimentary, literal interpretation of the chorus’ final line: “You better run, you better take cover”. A bus full of tourists from various spots on the globe attempt to do precisely that, when they discover themselves stranded in the desert, Mick picking them off in the manner of a duck hunter popping waterfowl – albeit with much more artistry in the construction of his victims’ deaths.

The primary prey include a sanctimonious British psychologist (Matt Day), a couple of Americans trying to save their marriage (Tess Haubrich and Charlie Clausen), geology and history students from Toronto (Laura Wheelwright and Elsa Cocquerel) and a German mining engineer (Julian Pulvermacher). Mick’s hatred of tour bus driver Davo (Ben Oxenbould) reminds us that while he doesn’t care for foreigners, nor is he necessarily pleased by locals, particularly if they suggest an ideology contrary to his barely discriminate menace – which is pretty much everybody.

More than the previous Wolf Creek iterations, McLean and co. pair the savageness of the landscape with the savagery of the villain, which gives the latter a ring of omnipotence; he is like an ancient beast roaming the countryside. The inevitable bickering between characters leads to moments of pseudo-philosophy more grotesque than any of the murders, with bargain-counter rhetorical questions and turns of phase such as “what’s the point surviving if we don’t have dignity?” and “this is the cost of being human”.

But for the most part the show, if overlong, has a good energy, some flair from the writers (Nick Parsons, Shanti Gudgeon, Mark Dapin and Greg Haddrick), and very fine cinematography from Geoffrey Hall (whose other work includes shooting Chopper and The Principal). Considering the swapping chairs in the writing and directing departments, Hall emerges as one of the key authors.

And when Mick says to himself, during a pivotal moment in the storyline, “I love a sunburnt country”, all is forgiven. The filthy drongo lives to see another day, which of course means returning to the pub to sink another pint. Wolf Creek season two isn’t great satire (a few stubbies short of a six-pack, you, or either of the Micks, might say) but it’s angry and audacious, peppered by filmmakers present to serve the genre first and foremost – so fans of slasher type productions won’t complain about messed up priorities.

It’s not too much of a push to say the aforementioned, proclamation of love of the country is ironic, and/or bittersweet, and/or cautionary (i.e. we don’t want a country where men like Mick flourish) depending on how greatly it is interpreted as coming from the character or coming from the filmmakers. You could even say it is genuine: the words of a misanthrope who loves everything about the place other than the people. Mick Taylor is a vile character, but surprisingly accommodating on matters pertaining to allegory and symbolism.

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