Seldom Seen review | ENCOUNTER AT RAVEN'S GATE

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There exists a cluster of contemporary filmmakers who seem, despite consistent critical plaudits heaved their way, destined to tread a “specialized” road in most markets. In a world where we're on the third release of The Lord of the Rings films and have seen at least four separate digital dips for Terminator 2 (to say nothing of countless re-releases of less deserving titles), you'd think there'd be room in someone's back catalog for a filmmaker as unique as Rolf de Heer.

Whether de Heer reached his “tipping point” (an oft-referenced nebulous zone where an artist's work attains a relative level of critical and public acclaim) with Ten Canoes' win at last year's Cannes festival remains to be seen. If Canoes does finally rope de Heer's body of work into a greater public forum, one hopes Encounter at Raven's Gate, his unnerving study of societal disintegration (by allegorical way of, among other tropes, alien invasion), will find its way back into circulation.

The local police, aided by a state-sponsored astrophysicist(!), are investigating a decimated homestead in the titular Outback burg of Raven's Gate. Flashing back a week, ex-con Eddie resides at the same address, then a hydroponics farm maintained by his brother Richard and sister-in-law Rachel, who quickly develops feelings for bad-boy Eddie. Eddie, though, has eyes for waitress Annie, who in turn is lusted after by opera-loving cop Felix. The residents begin falling under a strange malaise brought on, at least in part, by their growing suspicion that some sort of alien presence has set up shop in or around town. Eventually, each character finds themselves pushed to behavioral extremes -- Eddie succumbs to Rachel, Felix is rebuffed by and murders Annie, Richard attempts to kill his wife and brother for their adultery -- and the whole of Raven's Gate begins crumbling with them, eventually beginning its cycle of life anew.

Along with a spread of Aussie films before it - Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mad Max, and Wake In Fright to name a few - Encounter at Raven's Gate paints a picture of the Outback as an alienating breeding ground for the disenchanted and emotionally stunted. Like the above films, de Heer posits that (even moderate) shifts in its sociological make-up will cause the Outback to quickly bubble over into anarchy. Its inhabitants seem to sit on a psychological precipice so steep that often only one false move is needed to plummet beyond salvation.

If the above paints a picture of a dry, depressing series of case studies in moral decay, it isn't inaccurate. What Raven's Gate happens to do in spite of all this angst, though, is imbue the film with authentic verve and a consistently engaging, schizophrenic tone that keeps it from being an out-and-out downer. In some ways, it's a less-commercial forbearer of Joon-Hwan Jang's superlative Save the Green Planet, hopping from horror to science fiction to psychological drama to hot-house exploitation with deft strokes throughout.

With such roving thematic content, it's a testament to both de Heer's strengths as a writer / director and his cast of (relative) unknowns that the film works consistently throughout its runtime. Tech credits are all outstanding on a budget; many of the names associated with the production end of Raven's Gate (to say nothing of de Heer's earlier works) continue to lend their talents to his films today.

Over the last few years, de Heer has offered a level of overall quality in his work so strikingly consistent it isn't overstepping to brand him an “auteur.” The Tracker and to a lesser extent Alexandra's Project rank as favorites of mine from the first half of the 2000's (to say nothing of their by and large glowing critical receptions in circles where opinions carry genuine weight); yours truly hasn't been lucky enough to score an audience with Ten Canoes yet, though if de Heer's track record is any indication it'll surely impress.

Hemdale initially released Encounter at Raven's Gate in the U.S., and on home video in conjunction with HBO; its rights now reside with International Film Management. When a filmmaker reaches their so-called “tipping point” it would seem important to have available for evaluation their past works, in order to better understand how they've arrived at a place of cultural relevance. Here's hoping de Heer's career continues on its current track, rendering Raven's Gate's re-release even more of a no-brainer than it stands as now. And let's be honest - any film possessing the wherewithal to blast The Easy Beats' "Friday on my Mind" over the end credits deserves much, much better than this.

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swarezMarch 7, 2007 3:24 PM

I remember seeing this as a kid. The cover artwork was a big favorite of mine for a long time untill I finally saw it. Looked fantastic but I didn't know what the hell was going on and haven't seen it since then. I did however see de Heer's Bad Boy Bubby and it shocked me and my friends and was a big favorite among teenagers over here. I would like to see Raven's gate again to see if it makes sense now.

KurtMarch 7, 2007 8:26 PM

De Heer has a new one (just reviewed by SCREEN), a homage to silent films called Dr Plonk. De Heer definately has range as a filmmaker.

collin aMarch 7, 2007 8:54 PM

I've trying to find more info on DR. PLONK for some time - hopefully we'll see a trailer and some release dates soon...

De Heer supposedly found 20,000-odd feet of filmstock intended for a hand-crank camera and decided to use it to shoot a feature, which turned into PLONK.