Almost 50 years after Ted Kotcheff’s “Wake in Fright” memorably introduced the notion of smalltown Australia as Hell-on-Earth, “Locusts” places another city slicker in similarly traumatizing outback peril. This thriller from director Heath Davis (“Book Week,” “Broke”) and firsttime screenwriter Angus Watts is a watchable if familiar rural melodrama about two brothers whose uneasy reunion after an unloved father’s death is greatly complicated by local criminal thugs. Opening at the Arena Cinelounge in Los Angeles on Nov. 29 after traveling the festival circuit, it seems destined to do primary export business as a marketably action-driven streaming item.
Though he looks the very cliché of a wealthy tech entrepreneur, Ryan Black (Ben Guerens) has not, in fact, made bank quite yet — one more factor contributing to his pill-popping anxiety as he most reluctantly travels from Sydney to the inland hometown he hasn’t visited for 20 years. The occasion is the funeral of the drunken, violent father who terrorized his childhood, and apparently offed himself at last. Not bothering to attend the ceremony is long-estranged brother Tyson (Nathaniel Dean), who nonetheless is found shortly afterward carrying on the family tradition by having a punch-up in broad daylight outside a local bar.
Dad (Malcolm Kennard, seen in flashbacks) left zilch behind, apart from his souped-up custom car — and, it seems, a fair share of debt. Which it turns out some among the many scuzzy local bad boys are hoping to collect at a considerable markup from presumed-rich Ryan, with Ty abducted as collateral.
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Given 48 hours to raise a hundred grand, Ryan enlists help from ex-girlfriend Izzy (Jessica McNamee), now a performer at an improbably slick strip club in the ill-named hamlet of Serenity Crossing. (The film was shot primarily in and around the nation’s longest-running mining community, Broken Hill, in western New South Wales — not coincidentally, also the location for “Wake in Fright.”) It’s her idea that they rob that joint, which briefly takes things in a more broadly comedic direction around the 50-minute mark, with Kenneth Moraleda playing a caricatured immigrant club boss. The story soon reverts to standard violent-thriller terrain, however.
“Locusts” is decently crafted — apart from an over-dependence on blackouts as scene transitions — but too conventionally hyperbolic to drum up much real tension. Nor are there many surprises in Watts’ screenplay, whose eventual twists have an air of soap-operatic contrivance. There’s not enough psychological depth to the writing to give the competent cast much to chew on. Still, all do their best in fairly one-dimensional roles.
It all goes down easily enough, if unmemorably so. There’s sufficient outback atmosphere in Carlo Crescini’s dusty production design and Chris Bland’s handsome widescreen photography. However, the answer to “How many shots of roadkill can you have in an outback-purgatory movie like this?” turns out to be “Too many.” Perhaps all of that is an homage to the 1971 Kotcheff film’s notoriously bloody (and real) kangaroo hunt.
“Locusts” is dedicated to the memory of Damian Hill, the versatile actor (“Pawno,” “West of Sunshine”) who plays one of the central goons here, and who passed away last year at age 42.