Damien Power’s Killing Ground is not an easy watch. In the opening minutes, we’re introduced to two families camping at Australia’s Gungilee Falls – a young engaged couple, and a mother, father, teenage daughter and infant son – and we’re immediately charmed by both. Killing Ground is extremely effective in establishing that these are good people who love each other very much. Fiancées Ian and Sam (Ian Meadows and Harriet Dyer) are funny, adventurous and passionate. Mom and Dad Margaret and Rob (Maya Strange and Julian Garner) are good-natured hippies who embarrass their teen daughter Em (Tiarnie Coupland) with their guitar-strumming and philosophical ramblings, but it’s clear that they’re wonderful parents to her and their toddler Ollie (twins Liam Parkes and Riley Parkes). We feel an instant affinity for these characters. We like them.
And then we watch them suffer through a film's worth of brutal torment.
Because we’re also introduced to German and Chook (Aaron Pedersen and Aaron Glenane), two outback hunters with no redeeming qualities or apparent motivation behind the cruelty they inflict upon these characters we love. Life is cruel, and sometimes there’s no reason for the agony we’re forced to endure, Killing Ground appears to be saying to us. Pain happens.
Power uses a clever parallel timeline approach that keeps us on our toes throughout the first half of the film, constructing a terribly inevitable kind of suspense that never gives the audience a moment to relax. All of the performances are exceptional, with Dyer and Coupland earning the lion’s share of our empathy early on. We want so badly for them to be okay, to escape the fate that we know awaits them.
Killing Ground is gorgeously shot and wonderfully lit, showing Australia’s natural beauty to impressive effect, especially contrasted with the brutality that unfolds onscreen. And there’s no minimizing the effect of that brutality – Killing Ground left me shaken and hollowed out. It’s a harrowing film, one that features multiple instances of sexual assault. It's a movie in which even the adorable toddler does not escape unscathed. Not by a long shot.
But for all that, it never feels as if Power is merely toying with us for the sake of shock value. The director demonstrates admirable restraint in his examination of humanity’s capacity for cruelty, often showing us the dreadful aftermath rather than luxuriating in the act itself. Even still, we feel every hit, every shot, every grope. Whether taking place onscreen or not, the violence in Killing Ground is incredibly effective. Too effective, perhaps.