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Writer/director Damien Power’s Killing Ground may tread some seemingly familiar territory in terms of its overall approach to survival horror—a young couple dealing with deadly backcountry predators on their idyllic getaway is certainly something fans have seen before. But make no mistake, what seems like a pretty standard set-up in Killing Ground evolves viciously into an unexpected game of cat and mouse, and Powers does a brilliant job of both embracing and deconstructing the genre tropes at play in his horrifically savage thriller.

At the start of Killing Ground, we meet young couple Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer), who are heading out to an Australian campground in the bushland to celebrate their New Year’s holiday and find some time for a little romance. When they arrive, they notice another campsite in the area, but decide to go on about their business, independently celebrating the arrival of a new year. Meanwhile, we are introduced to German (Aaron Pedersen) and his hapless crony Chook (Aaron Glenane), who work the rural area and spend their free time ogling young girls and devising ways to pick up the fairer sex.

What Powers soon reveals to us, through some remarkable, confident editing by Katie Flaxman, is that the two alpha males are behind the disappearance of the family who had been camping in the same spot as Sam and Ian prior to their arrival. After the couple makes a startling discovery in the woods, their paths intersect with German and Chook in the most violent way possible, resulting in an absolutely relentless third act that shredded my nerves with unexpected twists and turns in the best way possible.

Killing Ground certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen survival horror taken into the vast Australian landscapes—Wolf Creek and Long Weekend were two films that immediately came to mind while watching this, and I certainly mean that as a compliment—but Powers expertly realizes the familiar domain he treads here, and smartly focuses his attention on giving us compelling characters worth investing in (both heroic and villainous). The filmmaker plays against our expectations with an intricately framed story that weaves between the film’s two storylines with an impressive sense of ease.

Powers also shows great confidence as a director in Killing Ground, allowing tensions to slowly simmer throughout the film’s first two acts, gradually revealing his cinematic cards and building up to an unforgettable finale steeped in unflinching brutality. The film features several scenes that are rather tough to get through (particularly once German and Chook get their hands on the missing family from the abandoned campsite), but Powers never ventures across the line of vulgarity, which could have been so easy to do here.

Both Meadows and Dyer are equally great protagonists in Killing Ground, but it’s Pedersen and Glenane who steal the show with a pair of performances that easily rise above their primal stereotypical characters, making German and Chook into something more than yet another incarnation of Australian roughnecks with murderous intentions. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Tiarnie Coupland, who plays the teenaged daughter of the missing family and does a wonderful job making the most of her character’s limited screen time.

While Killing Ground may be Power’s feature film debut, his work has all the markings of an assured visual storyteller with the ability to create a taut and relentless experience. His razor-sharp sense of precision is fully on display here, and I eagerly look forward to anything he does in the future.

Movie Score: 4/5

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