“The Warriors” is a real peculiarity, a movie about street gang warfare, written and directed as an exercise in mannerism. There’s hardly a moment when we believe that the movie’s gangs are real or that their members are real people or that they inhabit a real city.
That’s where the peculiarity comes in: I don’t think we’re supposed to. No matter what impression the ads give, this isn’t even remotely intended as an action film. It’s a set piece. It’s a ballet of stylized male violence.
Walter Hill, the director and co-writer, specializes in fables like this. His first two films were “Hard Times” and “The Driver,” and they were both at arm’s length from realism. Hill likes characters that take on a legendary, mythic stature, and then he likes to run them through situations that look like urban tableaux.
“Hard times,” a good and interesting film, starred Charles Bronson as a professional street fist-fighter who went up against opponents with all the dimension of a James Bond villain. “The Driver” didn’t even have names for its characters; they were described by their functions, and they behaved toward each other in strangely formal, rehearsed, unspontaneous ways.
“The Warriors” takes that style to such an extreme that almost all life and juice are drained from it; there’s great vitality and energy (and choreography and stunt coordination) in the many violent scenes of gang fights and run-ins with the cops. But when the characters talk, they seem to be inhabiting a tale rehearsed many times before.
One example: Three members of a street gang are lined up in a row. The camera regards the first one. He speaks. The camera pans to the second, and he speaks. The camera pans to the third. He speaks. Because the movement of the camera dictates the order and timing of the speeches, there can be no illusion that the characters are talking as their words occur to them.
This same kind of stiff stylization dominates the film. The street gangs take stances toward each other as if they were figures in a medieval print. The deployment of the police and gang forces is plainly impossible on any realistic level; people move into their symbolic places with such perfectly timed choreography that they must be telepathic. And the chase scenes are plainly impossible, as in one extended shot showing the Warriors outrunning a rival gang’s school bus.
All of this is no doubt Walter Hill’s intention. I suppose he has, an artistic vision he’s working toward in this film, and in his work. He chooses to meticulously ban human spontaneity from his films; he allows only a handful of shallow women characters into his stories; he reduces male conduct to ritualized violence. And in “The Warriors” he chooses, with a few exceptions, to cast against type: Only three or four of the movie’s characters look and sound like plausible street-gang members. The rest look and sound like male models for the currently fashionable advertising photography combining high fashion and rough trade.
All very well, I suppose, except that Paramount chooses to advertise the movie as a violent action picture — and action audiences, I suspect, will find it either incomprehensible or laughable. Walter Hill has a considerable visual skill, and he knows what he’s doing in “The Warriors” and does it well. But is this style suited to this material? And does Hill have other notes to play? All three of his films have shown a certain skittishness in the face of human juices and the unrehearsed flow of life. And so his street gangs, and his movies, walk lockstep through sterile streets.
That shameful refusal by Australia’s top Film Reviewers to not review Wolf Creek 2 on their popular At The Movies show just won’t go away… check out this excellent article by Jessica Balanzategui in The Age.
In the late 1980’s, Mick ”Crocodile” Dundee playfully encouraged audiences to question what really constitutes a knife when you’re in the untamed wilds of outback Australia. More recently, Mick Taylor of Wolf Creek similarly compelled potential visitors to the outback to think deeply and painfully about when a knife is really a knife.
He implores some German tourists to consider ”what the bloody hell are you buggers doing here?” And rightly so, considering what lies ahead for them.
The Wolf Creek films revel in the nightmarish underside to the myths of rural idyll, mateship and charming ockerism that have become so central to our ideas of national identity.
Horror films have long crept alongside the comedies, dramas and art films that make up the bulk of our cinematic output: before Babe, the adorable little pig who dared to dream big, there was Razorback, the giant wild boar that gleefully ripped its victims to pieces. In fact, some classic Australian films that we proudly hold as pinnacles of the craft, Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975), are basically horror films masquerading as lofty art pieces.
Wolf Creek 2 follows in the footsteps of these films, and in fact references Wake in Fright directly a number of times. Yet Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, the deserved royalty of Australian film criticism, refused to review Wolf Creek 2 on their influential television program, At the Movies, despite the fact the film is currently the top earner at the Australian box office.
For decades Pomeranz and Stratton have been vital cogs in the rather badly oiled machine that is the Australian film industry. Australian releases face a David and Goliath battle from the outset, being forced to compete with the flood of heavily marketed blockbuster Hollywood films.
Throughout their careers Pomeranz and Stratton have made it their mission to champion Australian films – even the ones they don’t particularly like – by raising awareness of Australian releases through their insightful reviews and interviews. Yet it seems that films classified as ”horror” are not extended this support.
This genre bias did not start with Pomeranz and Stratton: it has been an entrenched component of the Australian film industry since its revival in the 1970s. In the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood, Phillip Adams, who helped to establish Australia’s government film funding system, admits that in setting up the guidelines for funding ”many of us were very snobby about genre films, there’s no question about it. We didn’t approve of them.”
Wolf Creek director Greg McLean and producer Matt Hearn are all too aware of this issue. Hearn mortgaged his house to finance Wolf Creek; their follow-up, Rogue, was financed by American studio executives the Weinsteins; and Wolf Creek 2 was delayed for years due to funding shortfalls.
Snobbery towards horror films does nothing to help strengthen the Australian film industry. Just because a film is packaged as ”horror” does not automatically mean it is devoid of artistic and intellectual value: it just makes it easier to sell. Even Stratton, in his caustic review of Wolf Creek 2 in The Australian, reluctantly admits that the film’s cinematography, courtesy of Toby Oliver, is ”pristine”.
Wolf Creek 2 is indeed violent and confronting, particularly because of the disconcerting mash-up of Mick Taylor’s true blue Aussie humour and his sadistic, murderous intent. However, so was Wake in Fright, which Pomeranz described as ”menacing and sinister” with a ”disgustingly seedy” antagonist, yet which Stratton went on to describe as ”a great milestone in Australian cinema history”.
So, too, was the recent Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011), a thoroughly disturbing film about the infamous ”bodies in the barrel” murderer John Bunting. Yet Pomeranz lauded this film – classified as an ”art film” due to its minimalist style – for it ”does not pull back from exposing the audience to … grotesque brutality”. Stratton also complimented the film on its ”dark power”.
Yet Wolf Creek 2, which employs similar tactics wrapped up in a commercially viable horror film package, is by contrast ”ugly and manipulative”.
I deeply respect Stratton and Pomeranz and have idolised them for as long as I can remember. But their refusal to review Wolf Creek 2 – even just to declare their hatred for it – points to a long-standing problem within the Australian film industry.
The confected division between ”lofty” art pieces and ”low brow” horror is outmoded and unhelpful. Horror has some powerful and revealing things to say about our society, just as art films do.
Jessica Balanzategui is undertaking a film studies PhD at Melbourne University. Her research explores the cultural power of horror films. Read more and comment at The Age HERE