Road Train (2010)

Review first published by EyeforFilm

“It’s just somewhere where the three of us have been going for years,” explains cocksure Craig (Bob Morley) to his new girlfriend Nina (Sophie Lowe). He is out camping with his best friend Marcus (Xavier Samuel) and Marcus’ long-time girlfriend Liz (Georgina Haig) in the South Australian outback “in the bloody middle of nowhere” – but the presence of Nina has unsettled this trio’s delicate balance. It is not just Nina’s inexperience with camping, or the loud morning sex that she and Craig have in their tent. No, all the signs of dysfunction, all the secrets and lies, were already there, boiling below the surface, with Nina merely catalysing the violent explosion of rivalries and resentments to come.

Nina, that is, with the help of a whopping great vehicular behemoth. For Dean Francis’ film takes the simmering psychological tensions within a group dynamic, and sends a monster of a truck careening right through them, knocking events off their character-driven course and into the more genre-bound terrains of supernatural horror – while never quite forgetting where it all started. The road train literally rams the foursome off the highway, totalling their jeep and causing a wince-inducing injury to Craig’s arm – and then stops a little further uproad. There our young travelers find it empty, but when a madman runs up at them firing a pistol, they have little choice but to commandeer the giant vehicle and flee the scene for the nearest town. “Perhaps one of the drivers shot his mate,” comments Marcus. “This kind of place does strange things to people.”

Indeed. By this point savvy viewers will be congratulating themselves on recognising Richard Franklin’s Roadgames (1981) hitched to the rear of Stephen Spielberg’s Duel (1971) – but Francis tosses out these intertextual breadcrumbs only to make his hapless players and his viewers truly lose their way. The real threat here comes not from drugged-up hauliers, or from a satanic, bloodthirsty vehicle (à la 1983’s Christine), but from within, as all these genre trappings merely dress up a situation that was there in naked form all along, now exposed and exacerbated by the extremes of the landscape.

Road Train falls into a long tradition of Australian films, from Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) to Long Weekend (1978) to Wolf Creek (2005), that have used the barren harshness of the outback to reflect something just as mysterious, desolate and unforgiving in the human psychogeography. That said, though, Francis positively relishes taking his viewers on deranged, demonic detours down uncharted byroads of body horror, too, with grand guignol as icky as it is utterly irrational.

Key to the success of any roadside attraction is the view that it affords, and so Francis and DP Carl Robertson have thrown out the ‘gritty’ handheld aesthetic prevalent in much of today’s horror, preferring the grandiose swoops that only cranes and dollies can supply – and so the film’s epic brand of intimacy is mirrored by some breathtaking cinematographic vistas. Great soundtrack, too, from Rafael Mays, combining monster rock with creepy electronica, and finally a haunting song by actress Sophie Lowe.

Eventually the film’s actions will veer entirely into the unhinged and the uncanny, but the cast plays it straight all the way, with the exception of Australian genre icon David Argue (Razorback, Backlash, Hercules Returns) in the role of the driver – or ‘psycho’, as the closing credits have it – who sends a shudder of delirium through his every scene, as though he has materialised from another dimension. Which is about right, given that ultimately Road Train is like a lost Antipodean episode of the Twilight Zone – or at least the bastard lovechild of The Cars That Ate Paris. So get on board, and see where the ride takes you.

Anton Bitel