Australian revenge film 'The Horseman' pulls no punches
And when I say "festival favorite" in that secondary headline, what I mean is "one of my favorite films I saw during a festival." That festival happened to be SXSW '09, so it was over a year ago, but for me, the film stood out then and hearing it's finally available for audiences to see in some form is great news, reason to revisit it.
Steven Kastrissios is the young writer/director of the film, and it's one of those names that I look up after seeing a film, knowing that I'm going to have to learn to spell it, because I have no doubt I'll be writing it many times over the years to come as he moves on to whatever's next. This is not a film I'd recommend because it somehow shatters the narrative paradigm or reinvents aesthetic film language... it's just a meat and potatoes revenge film, a father who is on a linear furious path of revenge against anyone involved in turning his daughter into first a porn "star" and second a corpse.
Christian (Peter Marshall) is an obviously named lead, ironic in every moment, but that sort of obvious move is countered by the surprising tenderness and depth of Marshall's work as a father whose entire system has been fried by the idea of his daughter dying. The further he digs into circumstance, the less he likes what he learns, and that pain would be bad enough without the idea of murder entering into it. His rage would already be something any father watching the film would identify with, something primal and direct. But knowing what happened to her, finding out detail after detail of it, just tears him to pieces, like the pain from her passing is this bullet that just keeps rattling around inside him, shredding, cutting, till nothing's left.
There's a relationship he develops with a runaway he picks up on the road, and of course the things he's feeling about his daughter are going to get tied up with the things he's feeling about the runaway, and it's all confused and strange and that's a big part of what works. Marshall and the young runaway, Alice (Caroline Marohasy) have a very strong rapport, and that's what makes me think Kastrissios is capable of pretty much whatever. There's some truth to the idea that it's easy to be brutal, and that's not an insult. It's just that once the action scenes in this film begin, they are punishing, and stunt coordinator Chris Andersen is an Australian legend, a guy who has staged this sort of long slow motion cartwheel of pain in this film, giving Kastrissios something exceptional to shoot in the first place. It's the human details that underline all this punishment and operatic drama that really makes the film stick to you over time.
Christian punishes the men who hurt his daughter, and part of what fuels his anger is a gradual realization that maybe she wasn't pushed too hard, and maybe she made some choices that he didn't know about, and maybe he didn't really raise the person he thought he did. That's some of the most gut-wrenching stuff for me to watch in the film. He has to come to terms with what it means to know the truth about his daughter and what happened to her. There are things you can't forget, things you can't undo, and Christian doesn't hesitate to do them and see them and lay witness to this extreme punishment. He needs it. He needs to do it. He needs to witness it.
"7 Days," a film I saw at Sundance, explored the same territory, and like I said... it's not a new idea. But like "7 Days," this film stakes its own particular claim thanks to the way Kastrissios brings it together, and thanks to the way he stages the altercations. I've seen films that took me to the same places as "The Horseman" before, but I'm not sure any other revenge picture ever left the same sort of bruises as this one. It's a strong announcement by a talented filmmaker, and it's available now on Blu-ray and DVD.
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