Anger and Banality in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead

26 March 2014
Mike Bishop as David Yale

Mike Bishop as David Yale

My article on Ghosts… of the Civil Dead for Senses of Cinema as part of their Key Moments in Australian Cinema series:

The anger that seethes throughout John Hillcoat’s debut feature film, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, can be felt in almost every scene. Anger is explicitly articulated, acts of violence resulting from anger are depicted or described, and in scenes without overt expressions of anger it can be felt underneath the despair, cruelty and hopelessness that have resulted from a corrupt prison system. Every character who appears on screen (as opposed to the voices on the intercom and the people shown in news reports and pornography) is either a prisoner, a prison officer or, in one instance, a policeman. Nearly all of them have reasons to be angry as they are all at the mercy of an unidentified external bureaucracy who want the anger in the prison to manifest as violence to justify harsher prison conditions and the funding of new facilities to deliver the required brutality.

Head over to Senses of Cinema to read the full article

This article received the Ivan Hutchinson Award for Writing on Australian Film in the 2015 Australian Film Critics Association Film Writing Awards

Film review – The Road (2009)

27 January 2010

The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee)

After the success of Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, the next novel by McCarthy that was the obvious one to adapt for the screen was his Pulitzer Price-winning novel The Road. When it was announced that Australian director John Hillcoat was going to direct there was a sense of relief. Hillcoat’s previous film, his 2005 Australian Western masterpiece The Proposition, articulated the sort of violent existentialism and bleak landscapes that are to be found in McCarthy’s story about an unnamed man and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Also, Hillcoat’s début feature film, the 1988 futuristic prison drama Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, contains a similar fragmented narrative to The Road where a sense of relentless monotony is punctuated with extreme, but fleeting, incidents.

The trust placed in Hillcoat to adapt The Road has paid off and the result is one of cinema’s most faithful adaptations. Hillcoat has embellished some aspects of the novel and condensed others for the purpose of making the text more cinematic but it would be very difficult to question any of his decisions as by doing so he has successfully ensured that The Road functions as a film in its own right.

As the unnamed father in the film, Viggo Mortensen delivers an astonishing performance as a man who is essentially trying to survive while still doing the right thing. The parental bond that Mortensen establishes on screen with the 13-year-old actor Kodi Smit-McPhee playing his son is extremely powerful and this bond gives the film the small bursts of humanity that radiate out through the bleakness. Smit-McPhee is astonishing and demonstrates a disciplined approach to portraying complex emotions on-screen that is far beyond his years. Together the pair ‘carry the fire’ through a wilderness populated by murderers, rapists and cannibals.

Visually The Road is a relentless palate of greys and browns making the eye initially struggle to adjust to its lack of colour and light. This of course is part of what makes the film such a beautiful expression of McCarthy’s prose and Hillcoat wisely uses a low-key combination of location footage and CGIs to create a sad industrial wasteland that is more reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker than Mad Max.

The one main sticking point many may have with Hillcoat’s The Road is the ending, which, although it stays faithful to the novel, on the surface may appear compromised. It is nevertheless a fitting conclusion that actually remains completely true to the core ideas expressed throughout the rest of the film and upon extended reflection it becomes clear that it is the only ending that is possible. Anything else would have upset the delicate balance of ideas and meaning that make The Road resonate so profoundly.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Cinema Autopsy is back!

9 January 2010

While January is always a slow month for film releases I’ve decided it is time to crank Cinema Autopsy up again for another year. In 2010 I’ll be aiming to post two film reviews a week; one on the weekend and one mid-week.

Facebook and Twitter
I do see more films than I write full reviews about so I often post micro reviews and updates on both Cinema Autopsy‘s Facebook page and Twitter account. Both Facebook and Twitter are also great ways to get in touch with me.

On air
I’ll be back on Triple R (3RRR 102.7) next Wednesday 13 January 2010 at 8:15am to chat to the Summer Breakfasters about It’s Complicated. I’m also hoping to get some more Graveyard Shifts on Triple R this year to play my collection of film music throughout the dead of the night!

I resume co-hosting The Casting Couch on JOY 94.9 next Saturday 16 January 2010 at 5:00pm for a new season of weekly film reviews, interviews and conversation. The Casting Couch also has its own Facebook page.

The On Air page is regularly updated with details about what is coming up on The Casting Couch plus you can find links to the playlists from when I’ve selected the music and our podcasts.

Both Triple R and JOY can be streamed live via their respective websites but please note that all times are Melbourne, Australia daylight savings time (UTC/GMT +11).

Page to Picture: The Road
On Tuesday January 26 2010 at 3.30pm (public holiday) I will be moderating a panel discussion about John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. A pre-release screening of The Road will precede the discussion. The panel are a diverse and impressive bunch (see the Cinema Nova website for more details) so hopefully I’ll be able to hold my own!

Top Films of the 2000s
I am planning to do a list of my favourite films of the decade that has just passed but am holding off until I see a few specific 2009 films that are yet to be released in Australia. Hopefully that list will be posted by late February but in the meantime have a look at my Top Ten films from 2009 (released in Melbourne, Australia) if you haven’t done so already.

Here’s to 2010 being a great year in the cinema!

Exhibition review: Setting the Scene

27 February 2009

Analysing Space and Place: ACMI’s Setting the Scene: Film Design from Metropolis to Australia


Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Setting the Scene: Film Design from Metropolis to Australia is an exhibition by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, running until 19 April 2009 in ACMI’s underground screen gallery at Federation Square, Melbourne. Setting the Scene is about the work of the production design teams who create the worlds that films occupy. This exhibition is a useful way to consolidate the students’ awareness that everything they see in a film (the mise-en-scene) has been carefully planned and put there for a specific reason. Setting is a key element of film mise-en-scene and identifying the ways in which setting reflects the themes and drama of a film is instrumental in film analysis.  

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