Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Horseman (2008) Film Review
Reviewed by: Anton Bitel
"She'll be all right – we're lovers, not fighters."
Out of context, the words might sound reassuring, but they come from Chuck (Damon Gibson), a caring husband who also likes to make rough (in every sense) sex tapes on the side, and who who will shortly be showing his intimate familiarity with the ins and outs of torture (introducing his brutality with the decidedly erotic expression: "Alone at last").
Love and war. Sex and violence. These themes have long been mainstays of art (not to mention life), and in Steven Katrissios' feature debut, this fundamental opposition becomes very tangled. Here, porn shoots take place in a gym normally reserved for 'bloodsports', while a father uses a penknife, gifted to him by his daughter and inscribed with the word 'love', to mete out bloody punishments upon himself and others.
The Horseman opens in the thick of things. Fittingly dressed in his pest-control overalls, middle-aged Christian (played with arresting intensity by Peter Marshall) pays a home visit to Walters (Bryan Probets), beats him bloody with a crowbar, destroys a collection of video tapes piled in his cupboard and, ignoring the man's desperate pleas, burns him to death – but only after revealing that Walters is not the first victim of his vendetta. This fractured chronological structure immediately recalls the opening of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and serves to unsettle the viewer's sympathies from the outset. Our protagonist, it seems, is to be a merciless and sadistic killer – and we may well wonder just how far we are happy to travel with him down Queensland's dark highways.
One person willing to take that ride is Alice (Caroline Marohasy), a young woman who hitches a lift with Christian in the night, oblivious to the nature of his 'business' - and the relationship of kindness and respect that develops between them is part of what humanises Christian, showing us his capacity for fatherly love.
Fatherly love will also emerge as the prime factor motivating Christian's killing spree. As it is revealed that his daughter Jesse (Hannah Levien) was found drowned in her own vomit on an inner-city industrial area, her body pumped full of cocaine, heroin and semen, we begin to understand that Christian is tormented with grief and guilt (he even self-harms) - and the further disclosure that Jesse was involved in a degrading porn shoot shortly before her death makes all the more sense of Christian's confused outrage. He is a man in great pain, trying to locate an unsullied image of his beloved daughter from all the sordid filth of her last days, much as we see him recovering her ashes from the trashbin where he angrily discarded them.
Still, when we watch Christian tracking down the pornographers one by one, using a range of domestic tools to extract information from them about his daughter's final hours, and then murdering them in cold blood (and heated rage), the revenge fantasies within the viewer that this subgenre is usually designed to exploit and fuel are here tempered by our constant awareness of Christian's own unhinged depravity. His very name, clearly emblazoned across his work overalls, may suggest a person full of forgiveness and love for his enemies, but there is something repellently Old Testament about his uncompromising way with a crowbar (and a hammer, and fishhooks, and a bicycle pump...).
Those that he so cruelly dispatches may be contemptible bottom-feeders, but they have sinned more by omission than commission, and hardly seem to deserve the barbaric treatment they receive. After all, as they keep insisting under extreme duress, Jesse was only there by choice and "no one forced her to do nothing". And so it is as though Christian has us, too, as his captive audience, painfully interrogating our own muddled feelings about the sex industry, retribution, and the limits of love, fatherly or otherwise.
Only in the climactic scenes, when Christian is brought face-to-face with the last man (Brad McMurray) to have seen Jesse alive, does The Horseman start abandoning these troubling moral contradictions for more conventional genre material – except that even here, as Christian shifts from tormentor to victim, Kastrissios is at pains to stress the symmetry of the two roles, so that our sympathies for Christian's sufferings are inevitably rather circumscribed. He is, after all, just another victim of revenge, self-harming to the end.
So while The Horseman will have viewers squirming in their seats, its take on the workings of vengeance is remarkably responsible, rooting our discomfort in its ethical challenges as much as its visceral thrills. Just don't expect a likeable film – the pleasures on offer here are of a rather more complicated and rarefied variety than those found in your average skinflick.Reviewed on: 12 Mar 2009