The film begins with the traditional hymn Happy Land sung over black and white pictures of death and carnage: this foreshadows the murder of the Hopkins family, which we learn will propel the narrative. Suddenly, the death rattle of a gunfight assaults our senses, shocking us into awareness and action. We quickly learn that these outlaws are brothers, exiled from the Burns gang who was responsible for the brutal rape and murder of the aforementioned family. Charlie and Mikey, now prisoners, are at the mercy of the moral tyrant Captain Stanley. Charlie makes a deal with the devil: he must kill his oldest brother Arthur to free himself and Mikey. The Captain’s justice is seemingly crueler than the outlaw’s crime: What happens when the rule of law is turned upside down? Do we sympathize with the Devil? “Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints”.
Stanley has come to Australia seeking to tame this rugged Outback, to civilize the natives, to bring humanity to the inhumane. This racist mentality is at the center of the film: British Imperialism brings not salvation but corruption and moral injury. The dichotomy is visually expressed: a set of fine china, a rose garden, a Christmas tree, and a prim and proper wife, all set against this harsh panorama. Captain Stanley is torn asunder when his superior orders the lashing of Mikey that will probably kill the prisoner. Not only is the Captain’s authority questioned, but his word of honor. The story progresses through beautifully grim and barren landscapes, the sky painted deep orange, the ubiquitous flies swarming like storm clouds.
Director John Hillcoat uses empty desolate spaces to tell the story; he expands the distance between characters here at the end of the world, and crosscuts until fate writes the final chapter of their brief lives. This film is also about time, that long empty breath of mortality, because the story progresses inexorably towards the Christmas Armageddon. But diegetic time collapses and becomes inert, disconnected from reality. Like the characters, we become lost. Does Charlie lose his soul to the devil…or regain it?
Final Grade: (B+)