“This is something that you’re not going to survive,” says big bearded Ricky (Justan Wagner) who has just rained a series of heavy punches to the face of Jack (Thomas Roach) lying supine on the floor and is about to strangle the bloodied, fallen man, with Jack’s girlfriend Rachel (Nicole Tudor) left for dead in the adjoining room. There is a fatalism to Ricky’s line, coming near the beginning of Sam Curtain’s Beaten To Death, and only reinforced by the film’s ominous title – although we also know, from a brief prologue expressly set 48 hours later that shows Jack still alive, if barely, and staggering zombie-like through a vast rural Australian landscape at sunset, that our hero is going to die hard. “Aren’t you a tough cunt!”, as the local Ned (David Tracy) will later say to him.
Beaten To Death is an extremely brutal film, but its brutality comes mostly front-loaded, with the battering that Jack receives at the beginning, and far greater, more unspeakable injuries inflicted on him not long after, occurring largely in the first third of the run time, so that the rest is a slow, two-day unravelling of trauma and consequence, as Jack gropes his way through a hostile open land whose stark beauty is now lost on him. “The innocent become broken,” Ned will say, referring to how his little brother was damaged by his time in the military. Yet he might as well be describing Jack himself, whose excursion with Rachel from city to country – also a transgressive passage from innocence to experience – will shatter both their lives forever. This is a story of fucking around and finding out, as the couple’s flirtation with criminality will leave them forever exiled from their Edenic existence.
As the film tracks Jack’s efforts to get help and simply, desperately to survive, the narrative also cycles backwards and forwards from its epicentre of extreme violence to show the urban home from which Jack has come, and the increasingly stripped-down, feral state to which he is reduced by his one ‘bad decision’ and its unwinding ramifications. “You should never have come here, you don’t belong,” Ned tells Jack – and indeed, for much of the duration, Jack is not just a walking wound, but a stranger in a strange land, utterly dependent on kindness from others that is in very short supply.
As such, Beaten To Death falls somewhere between Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971) – for in the Australian hinterland, Jack comes into confrontation with a backwoods family and the very worst kind of toxic masculinity, and must suffer through a torturous ordeal of survival horror which comes with an increasingly existential slant to it. As Jack is buffeted not just by Ricky and other men, but by the unforgiving harshness of nature and a fragmenting grip on reality, his anguished odyssey becomes a study in the thin line between civilisation and monstrousness, mundanity and mortality.
Despite moments of sublime transcendence, Beaten To Death is a tough, dark, harrowingly bleak watch from which you will emerge bruised and scarred but also, if you are lucky, alive and blinking into the light.
strap: Sam Curtain’s brutal survival horror batters the viewer with an odyssey of outback ultraviolence and existential angst
© Anton Bitel