The Meat Pie Western:
How Australia And New Zealand Became The Wild West
In one of the pivotal moments in Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog, the sad-eyed rancher George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) stops the car in which he rides with his new wife, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), so that they might stretch their legs. They stand a little in the grass. They are still learning from each other; still in that early, fragile stage of love in which a new language is being established, and boundaries are being shakily drawn.
Her voice gentle, Rose suggests they dance a two-step together, which they do, haltingly, their bodies whipped by the wind. But then George stops, overwhelmed. “I just wanted to say,” he manages, looking like he might cry, or vomit, or both, “how nice it is not to be alone.” And then he takes her in his arms, and holds her.
Campion, who has spent her career shooting landscapes as though they are made of human skin, cuts wide. George and Rose are tiny figures, surrounded by the mountains, little scraps of life that cling to one another while surrounded by a hostile environment that will soon drive them – in different, but equally lonely ways – utterly mad.
The Power Of The Dog is, for most of its running time, a deconstruction of the Western – a vicious pulling-apart of the ways that the archetypal cowboy is in fact a thin performance of masculinity, designed to cover up a lifetime of wounds and hidden, secret desires. But in its use of the brutal landscape, Campion’s masterpiece is part of a long and storied history of films that have placed tormented figures in an environment that seeks to actively harm them. Indeed, even more specifically, it is part of a history of films that have used the Australian and New Zealand landscapes as a stand-in for horror, and heartache, and human lives that have come to be lived, quite all of a sudden, without dreams.
Not that you’d be able to tell that The Power Of The Dog was shot in New Zealand. Its barren, dusty vistas and cavernous hills, spotted with the decaying corpses of poisoned cows, are a perfect stand-in for the vicious Montana landscape that drives Rose to drink and the taciturn George deeper into his razor wire bed of a childhood. This too is an established trope – the ability to shoot Australia, even the most iconic Australian wilderness, as though it is any place at all – and one that dates back decades, birthed during one of the most frenetic and free-wheeling eras of Australian film history.
Australian filmmakers have been fascinated by Westerns since the birth of the industry. One of the very first major motion pictures made in this country, The Story Of The Kelly Gang, was a shaky, bushranger epic, a motley take on the outlaw myth that fed into this country’s obsession with the outsider who fashions, out of his loneliness, weapons of sun-blasted resilience.
But it was during the ‘70s that the Australian wilderness truly became an ugly, blood-hued backdrop for the story of men without hope, and the other men that they murder. Designed as a reaction to the stately, overwhelmingly polite glut of Australian films that seemed finely-tuned to attract the attention of European critics – My Brilliant Career, Picnic At Hanging Rock – the ‘Ozploitation era’, as it has come to be known, was a raucous time of spilt blood, bare bodies, and a thick wave of flies, settling on the dying eyes of desperate men.
There were commercial considerations too. As Hollywood leaned into the excessive, soaring budgets of the era of the new auteur – the rise of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and peddler of the perverse Brian DePalma – Australia represented a break from old money, and out-of-control budget costs. The Australian film industry was a scrappier, more novel proposition, filled with creatives who had no tie to traditional understandings of how a movie should be made, or, importantly, how much it should cost. Australian directors shot from the hip, unconcerned with the established visual language of movie-making that had come to stagnate and sour overseas. They moved fast; worked cheap; spun narratives out of scrap.
The government actively fostered these stories. What could have otherwise been the tale of a trickle of cinematic outlaws instead became a flood of filmmakers thanks to initiatives by the Gough Whitlam administration, designed to put Australian narrative art on the map. Whitlam, and those in power, knew the potential for Australia to be a sight of great cinematic promise, and so funded even the most outre and bizarre of art.
Some of these piss-and-arsenic slathered Western horror stories leaned into their quintessentially Australian quality. Stone, a biker epic that took the haunted and lonely cowboy and turned him into an acid-addled, bearded rebel, was thick with the vernacular of the country’s obsession with the outlaw. Quigley Down Under, an American production, even dared to make the subtext into text, directly confronting Australia’s history of genocide. In these films, Australian men were drawn as desperate, deranged figures, unable to process the great grief that birthed them and loping forever towards some new, always slightly distant, form of absolution.
But, for every so-called “Meat Pie Western” that burrowed deeper into the particularities of Australia, there was a Western made in this country that was utterly divorced from place; that either deliberately tried to ape the vistas of America, so as to attract foreign audiences, or that shot the outback as though it were no country at all.
Inn Of The Damned, directed by Terry Bourke, is the pinnacle of that approach to storytelling. Though shot in Eastern Victoria, the film is deliberately designed to resemble a haunted, traumatic memory of a space, rather than any particular part of the world. Following a pair of crooked, murderous innkeepers who take revenge for the loss of their children on whoever is unlucky enough to cross their paths, the film is a reckoning with the universal qualities of the Western – the isolation; the horror of being a human being in a landscape that has, for a change, not been designed for our own comfort; the ways that what on first glance seems like independence can, in fact, be a horrible kind of derangement.
Razorback, the masterpiece by music video pioneer Russell Mulcahy, took that even further. In that film – inspired by everything from the archetypal Western High Noon to the dream-like vistas of Steven Spielberg – the landscape itself, as barren and inhospitable as the surface of the moon, begins to actively reject those who scrape their livings across it. The enemy might be a deranged boar, but the real horror is a reckoning with the fact that, whatever we might think of ourselves as a species, we are much further down the food chain than we imagined.
As the years went on, these Westerns re-shaped and twisted themselves into new forms. Long Weekend, directed by Richard Franklin, traded horses for cars, and the traditional cowboy for the isolated, rugged modern man. Again shot in an Australia that was designed to look like the States, the point was the same: the Wild West never died, even as it was paved over and populated.
And then there’s Mad Max. Shot in Australia, but designed to look like something scraped off a road anywhere in the world, the film revolutionized what seemed possible for the Western. Suddenly, that core loneliness had become inescapable. It wasn’t just that the film’s hero, the crumbled Max (Mel Gibson) of the title, had been born alone. It’s that he had once known a place; that there had been a time, even within his recent memory, where he had a home, and a family, and some sense that the world was explicable. And then, out of nowhere, that meaning was ripped out from underneath him by a pack of punks that represent the utter, pervasive meaningless at the heart of the world, leaving him ragged as a newborn, desperate as a rabid dog.
Red Hill, directed by FINCH’s Patrick Hughes, shares Mad Max’s obsession with the broken family; with the awful, unpredictable ways in which the ones you love can be taken away from you. Its landscape too is hostile, a snaking, dusty enemy beneath the feet of the damaged and damaging characters.
But shot in Australia, scraped out to look like the barren corners of any country where evil things happen in the shadows, it is perhaps, even a bleaker proposition than Mad Max. While Max ends with a shaky kind of grace, pulled out of the tailpipe of a broken down husk of a car, Red Hill ends with a ragged whisper from a dying man. No heroes. No resetting of the balance. Just a collection of hollowed-out walking horrors, whipped to pieces by the wind.
That is what unites these Westerns, as disparate as they are – the shaky throughline from The Story Of The Kelly Gang to The Power Of The Dog, all the way through the Ozploitation era to the modern revival of the Western. It is the realisation, that, underneath it all, we have an uneasy relationship to our countries. That we are to these landscapes – whether they be Australian, or Australia-as-America, or anyplace at all – flies on the back of a horse, to be whipped idly and distractedly away.