Gritty Australian outback drama captures audiences’ hearts

Gritty outback drama: The Heath Davis-directed Locusts, a crime thriller set in the Australian bush starring Neighbours alumnus Ben Geurens (IMDB)

The team behind the Australian comedy Book Week have come together again, this time to tackle the dark side of outback life in a gritty crime drama set in a crisis-stricken mining town.

Titled Locusts, this film looks at life in a mining community in the Australian outback where the main source of the town’s income is drying up as the mining industry declines. The title is a reference to the insect that brings pain to grain farmers and is also a reference to the behaviour of the various characters in the film. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that they are all using one another to further their own agenda.

Neighbours alumnus Ben Geurens plays the protagonist Ryan Black, who left the mining community of Serenity Crossing in the Broken Hill region of NSW for the big lights of Sydney, eventually making it big as a technopreneur. While most people in his hometown are still struggling, he has managed to find stability in his life and career. All that is threatened when he has to return home for the funeral of his father (Malcolm Kennard, Catching Milat), with whom he has had a troubled relationship with. He also reconnects with his ex-con brother Tyson (Nathaniel Dean, Alien: Covenant) who has been out of work for some time, and old family friend Jake (Andrew McPhee, Sons of Anarchy, Gallipoli), a former station owner now eking out a living as a hunter.

At his father’s funeral, Ryan is accosted by a group of local thugs led by the unhinged Benny (Justin Rosniak, Animal Kingdom), who claim to be associates of the deceased. Ryan discovers his father has died without leaving any assets behind, except for a 1972 Ford Mustang Mach 1. On his way back to Sydney in his Mercedes-Benz coupe, Ryan is forced off the road and his car is rendered undriveable. He reluctantly accepts a ride back into town with Benny and his mates, who take him to the local strip club and reveal that they have kidnapped Tyson and Ryan must hand over $100,000 within the next 48 hours or his brother dies.

Gritty outback drama: The Heath Davis-directed Locusts, a crime thriller set in the Australian bush starring Neighbours alumnus Ben Geurens (IMDB)

The only person willing to help him is dancer Izzy (Jessica McNamee, The Meg), Ryan’s one-time girlfriend and now a single mother to a sickly girl. She comes up with a dangerous plan to hustle her boss Ari (Kenneth Moraleda, Jay’s Jungle) of his takings, with an eye on using part of it to leave town and give her daughter a better life. What follows is a rapid descent into hell for Ryan as old family secrets are uncovered and a betrayal of trust by Jake is revealed.

Locusts was filmed on location in Broken Hill and offers a huge glimpse at the landscape of the outback. It was shot over 4 weeks with cinematographer Chris Bland behind the lens on his 3rd feature outing with Heath Davis. The story is boosted by strong character performances by veteran Australian-born thespians. The dominant theme of this film revolves around hard times that follow the mining boom in the Blacks’ hometown, most notably unemployment, drug – specifically methamphetamine – abuse, growing desperation and a mysterious illness. All these were inspired by scriptwriter Angus Watts’ personal experiences growing up in Quirindi, NSW.

Industry heavyweight The Black List has hailed the script, saying “Locusts is an in-
tense crime thriller drama with solid plotting and some striking, vicious characters that richly suit its gritty setting. The script is raw and often brutal, pulling no punches in portraying a violent and unforgiving criminal world. The sting at the Sidewinder Club, an alluring ‘feral outpost of civilization’, has a gonzo insanity to it that would make [Quentin] Tarantino blush and hardcore moviegoers lean in gleefully.” It also went on to become a Screenplay Semifinalist at Los Angeles Cinefest in 2017.

After getting nominated for four categories at the OzFlix Independent Film Awards in 2019, Locusts had its international premiere at the Gold Coast Film Festival on 11 April before being shown in the United States at Newport Beach. Subsequent screenings were at Cannes, France; New Haven, USA; Winton, Queensland and London before its inclusion in the program at the recently-concluded Revelation Perth International Film Festival. It will be due for a special screening at Broken Hill on 15 August and a national theatrical release is slated for October.

It is easy to feel strongly for the characters in Locusts as the problems they face are as real as can be. There is nobody who is truly good or truly bad as all of them have their own baggage to carry. Ryan may have escaped a troubled childhood and made it big in the city but many from his hometown are not so lucky. Needless to say, this contributes to some degree of tension between him and the other characters. McNamee’s Izzy shows fortitude despite her less than ideal circumstances. She is thus willing to take huge risks that may cost her her life in an attempt to turn things around for her daughter. The atmosphere is something reminiscent of Mad Max. The desolate landscape due to environmental degradation caused by mining activity adds an ominous veneer to the storyline. Thus when Jake does what he did just to put food on the table for himself, at the expense of the other townspeople’s health, it is very hard to blame him.

Locusts is above all a tale of survival in a community where the main source of employment is rapidly drying up, people are desperate and the water supply has become dangerously contaminated as a direct result of economic activity. As such, it captures the minutiae of Australian working-class life, giving it a certain gritty character. The references to drugs may evoke memories of Revelation Perth International Film Festival 2017 entrant Watch the Sunset. Fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry may see some parallels between Ryan Black and Aaron Falk in that both men are eager to leave their past behind and stay as far away from their respective hometowns as possible. It is also possible to consider Locusts a modern-day Western with a strong Australian flavour.

Locusts has just finished screening at the Lorne Film Festival and will be hitting the screen in New York on 3 August. It was Pawno star Damian Hill‘s final appearance before his sudden death last year at the age of 42, as well as Rugby League superstar George Burgess‘s debut as an actor.