Based on George Ryga’s 1963 novel Hungry Hills, this tightly budgeted production milks every conceivable aspect of a rustic Saskatchewan small town to evoke a late-fifties world where everything is drying out or corroding in the arid winter months.
Essentially a borderline mystery about a local boy named Snit (United States of Tara’s Keir Gilchrist) who returns home to face the scorn of locals still outraged by the sins of his family, Hungry Hills is very much a literary tale of lies, moral corruption, and a dangerous ennui that seems to have destroyed everyone in town.
Snit’s escape from a boy’s institution puts the townsfolk on edge, including his emotionally traumatized aunt (Grace’s Gabrielle Rose) with whom he lives, and local cop Kane (Caprica’s John Pyper-Ferguson), the rambling, sole arm of the law who waits for clashes and conflicts to flare before stopping a local bootlegging operation.
Kane’s taken bribe money to push Snit out of town, but after he forcibly attempts to scare him off, he notices a change in the boy he helped send to the institution after the Snit’s father put a shotgun to his head.
Woven into the slow-moving story is Snit’s involvement with Johnny Swift (Alexander De Jordy), who convinces his old friend to aid in making moonshine after midnight, and earn extra cash from the sales to a local bootlegger. That partnership eventually turns sour, and the film’s drama comes to a close when Kane’s investigation threatens to shut down the moonshine operation.
By evoking rural argot and being as close to a novel’s pacing, Hungry Hills takes a while to reach its conclusion, and director Rob King takes great pains to let the camera absorb the hills, plains, clouds, mist, snow, and weather-beaten buildings as much as letting his actors react and deliver the dialogue without forced haste. That’s a definite positive, but the sacrifice may be a lack of backstory for secondary characters; Hungry Hills is essentially Snit’s story, and what’s shown is largely what the boy sees, hears, suspects, and reacts to rather then secondary threads that converge in the finale.
There’s clearly many areas where Ryga’s story could’ve been opened up (assuming the screenplay is in fact note-for-note faithful to the novel), but those additions would’ve taken away from many small moments that give the film a quiet edginess.
A perfect example is Snit’s walk home after a heated argument with Johnny. Like a dog, Johnny follows Snit, keeping a distance but every so often whistling a creepy three-note motif that hints at a vengeance streak and potential for violence which may erupt at any time.
King also avoids filming clichés, which is sometimes surprising: there are moments when violence, titillation and unpleasantness could’ve been dramatized, but he just fades out or cuts to the next day – decisions that ultimately accentuate pivotal bursts of violence and teasing, like Johnny’s revengeful assault on his abusive father.
The performances are generally strong, and everyone underplays their characters, which works, since the town is inhabited by emotionally numb people with nothing to do except sleep, work, and drink moonshine. The production décor is extremely atmospheric (the cars are from the late thirties, Kane’s pocket watch is appropriately cracked, Snit’s farm home has smashed windows), and Ken Krawczyk’s cinematography with the Red camera features gorgeous compositions and subtle lighting.
Although the DVD includes a trailer (terribly edited and a narrative mush), brief featurettes on stunts, the horses, visual effects, and a few deleted scenes, what’s really missing from this release is a filmmaker commentary track, and featurettes on the Red camera, Todd Bryanton’s excellent score, the locations, creating such a bleak environment, and author Ryga, although some details are archived at the film’s official website (see below).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan