The story starts with a slow tracking shot across a desolate highway, revealing a car abandoned by the side of the road, personal effects scattered about, driver’s side door cracked open. It’s a stunning opening shot, and there are plenty more moments like it: beautiful, ominous, unsettling, using the landscape in a way that’s simultaneously menacing/desolate and possessed of otherworldly beauty. Ashcroft—who co-wrote the script with Eli Kent, from a short story by Owen Marshall—has that David Cronenberg gift for icy precision and tonal control, where the filmmaking fills the viewer with dread before the credits have even finished. Something horrible is going to happen, probably more than once, and you’re just gonna have to wait for it.
The car belongs to a nuclear family on holiday. The father, Hoaggie (Erik Thomson), is a white man of Dutch descent who has worked as a teacher and a professor for a long time. His wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) appears to be Indigenous, and their tousle-haired teenaged sons, Maika and Jordan (Billy and Frankie Partene), are handsome, talkative, and obviously very close to each other and their mother (though one has unarticulated issues with his dad). The family’s two tormentors, who emerge from the brush as the family is relaxing after a picnic, demographically echo the family: there’s a charismatic, chattering white sadist named Mandrake (Daniel Gillies), after the magician; and a stone-cold-silent Indigenous man known as Tubs (Mathias Luafutu).
I mention the culture-clash aspect of the casting not because the film does a lot with it, but because it fails to really delve into it. This is the biggest missed opportunity of the movie, which has style to burn but (alas) questionable control over the larger meaning of what it shows us. It’s hard to tell if this is a case of simple neglect and obliviousness or if the filmmakers were afraid to go there because they didn’t want to overcomplicate the dynamic of tormentor/tormented (or if they cast the movie diversely because that’s what filmmakers are expected to do now, without pausing to think through the implications of that casting). The bad guys have an agenda and come ready to spring a few narrative twists with ripped-from-the-headlines resonance. But their motivation is ultimately pretty straightforward. It’s probably best to leave it to the viewer to figure out exactly what I mean by that, as this is a rare film where merely to discuss it is to give away its reason for being.