"Desert noir" may not be acknowledged as a most prominent cinema genre, but it remains one of the more interesting pop culture intersections where the Western, thriller, pulp fiction and road movie all spectacularly collide. Australia has a few crackers, like Bill Bennett's 'Kiss or Kill' and Ivan Sen's '‘Mystery Road’. Residing beneath the dusty surface of these coarse variations on human primitivism and alienation is a very old-fashioned morality fable, where the iconography of urban expressionism (blinking neon, wailing sirens, etc.) has been replaced with the sun-bleached landscapes and roadkill.
As director Heath Davis' 'Locusts' opens, we are introduced to Ryan Black (Ben Geurens, TV’s ‘Reign’), a bespectacled tech entrepreneur in Sydney who is haunted by memories of an abusive childhood. He returns to his desert hometown of Serenity Crossing for the funeral of his brutal father and to claim his inheritance, reuniting with his even more emotionally damaged brother, Tyson (Nathaniel Dean, ‘Alien: Covenant’), an alcoholic living on the fringe.
Unfortunately, Ryan also comes a cropper with a gang of smalltown crims - Cain (Steve Le Marquand, ‘Red Dog: True Blue’), Benny (Justin Rosniak, ‘War Machine’), Davo (Damian Hill, ‘West of Sunshine’) and the reluctant Caleb (Ryan Morgan), led by the wheelchair-bound McCrea (Alan Dukes, ‘Hearts and Bones’, ‘Ladies In Black’). With more than a passing nod to John Dahl's ‘Red Rock West’ and Oliver Stone’s ‘U-Turn’, Ryan finds himself stuck in the arse-end of nowhere with a broken iPhone and limited options.
Having assembled an impressive cast, Davis is content to stand back and give them room to play, from the rough humour of McNamee to the dark soul of Dean to the soulful stares of Morgan and Dukes effortlessly exuding villainous bad vibes. Geurens, meanwhile, is excellent - gradually falling apart over the span of a few days, a man desperate to get out alive, with one eye on the road ahead and the other on the locust cloud over the horizon. Deception, double-crosses and murder soon become interwoven, all in the name of money.
The screenplay of radiologist-turned writer/producer Angus Watts was partly inspired by his experiences growing up in the small NSW town of Quirindi, which went through hard times through drought and erosion, and later witnessing the impact of the end of the mining boom in regional Queensland. The crumbling, sun-bleached skeleton of an Australian mining town and the dialogue of its locals feel authentic in the same way that those in Ted Kotcheff's iconic 'Wake in Fright' did. This authenticity is bolstered by the skilled camerawork of DOP Chris Bland ('Broke', 'Book Week'), which assumes a god’s-eye perspective over the shooting location (the drought-stricken region of Broken Hill), allowing one to feel the pitiless, titled, jagged vastness of the landscape. It’s the kind of picturesquely godforsaken scenery in which you could imagine homesteaders in a John Ford western circling their wagons.
This authenticity is bolstered by the skilled camerawork of DOP Chris Bland ('Broke', 'Book Week'), which assumes a god’s-eye perspective over the shooting location (the drought-stricken region of Broken Hill), allowing one to feel the pitiless, titled, jagged vastness of the landscape.
However, the legs of the film begin to wobble at the local strip club, a neon den of thieves where characters like hulking bouncer Ivan (football player George Burgess) and grizzled local cop, Sgt Harvey (an unrecognisable Peter Phelps) seem to live. Whenever the film visits this location, 'Locusts' veers into comedic, faux-Tarantino territory, with the camera zooming in on character's faces and sudden movements prompting "swoosh" sound effects. Complete with a bungled heist sub-plot, it’s a jarring tonal shift from the realistic grittiness of the town.
Fatigue eventually sets in, for the director as well as the audience, and the film collapses into a redundant sonata of attractive carnage. Yet, it’s a mistake to chastise Davis for this excessiveness, because it’s this creatively fallow land (which brings to mind Jean-Francois Richet's 'Blood Father') that yields the highs of some of this unabashedly pulpy film’s most startling sequences. Just as you find creepy-crawlies around a cow’s skull in its early decay stages, so movies with modestly-budgeted production values can seethe with a lower vitality.
'Locusts' might be an imperfect movie with a few scenes that ring hollow, but the moments that work are fuller than many whole films.