The Horseman is an Australian addition to the long line of “vigilante dad” films that stretch back to Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, in which a father — normally either a widower or a divorcee — is made a tad nutty by grief, and begins ruthlessly slaughtering those responsible for a crime against a loved one. In essence, it represents a throwback to the type of old-school, badass revenge thrillers born from the same cinematic school that also gave the world Mad Max, Chopper and Romper Stomper. Make no mistake: This picture is repugnant, violent, gory, challenging, and difficult to love. With that said, though, The Horseman is an easy film to admire, and, if you can stomach extreme gore, easy to enjoy.
Christian (Marshall) is a blue-collar Aussie bloke from Queensland, Australia working as a pest controller who learns that his daughter has died as the result of a heroin overdose. Shortly after, an anonymous parcel arrives in the mail containing a Z-grade porn movie featuring his deceased little girl, who was obviously so drugged up during filming that the sexual acts could be construed as rape. Shattered and enraged, Christian sets out with toolkit in hand on a crusade of revenge to find those responsible and enact bloody vengeance. Along the way, Christian encounters and strikes up a friendship with a teenaged hitchhiker named Alice (Marohasy) who is inexorably pulled into his quest.
Writer-director Steven Kastrissios made his feature debut with The Horseman, and did a fantastic job of letting the movie unfold in a tight non-linear fashion. The subplot involving Alice — who acts as a kind of surrogate for Christian’s lost daughter while also being a similarly lost soul — anchors the film and provides a welcome sense of humanity in between the bursts of violence. Yet, while the movie does contain more character development than most films of this ilk, The Horseman is nonetheless somewhat lacking in this department. Most of the film is dedicated to torturing and brutal fights, and one gets the sense that the film could have been superior had it focused a bit more on the characters. Kastrissios has reportedly acknowledged that the original cut of the movie was two-and-a-half hours long; a full hour longer than the film in its theatrical form. Kastrissios also admitted that the missing scenes focused exclusively on character growth and exposition. Thus, a far superior edit of the film likely exists.
The Horseman is as unsettling as any Saw or Hostel-style romp, yet it’s far more gripping. The movie is also a visceral, peek-through-your-fingers experience — in particular, one scene containing an interrogation and a urethra examination with a bike pump will cause every male viewer to involuntarily place their hands over their laps as a protective shield. Director Kastrissios, who also edited the film, clearly learned his genre lessons well — he knew how to competently film action and fight sequences with a gripping, gruesome flair. And the fights here are not stylistic or beautiful — they feel unrehearsed. They are savage brawls fuelled by rage and a desire for survival, and can be painful, albeit exhilarating to watch. The camerawork is suitably grim, and thus the tone of the visuals fits the story extremely well. The majority of the film takes place at night, in the dark, or in dirty, soiled locations, reflecting the ugliness of the material. However, there are minor technical imperfections and awkward moments from time to time that draw attention to the movie’s low-budget nature.
At the centre of all the action is the fascinating character of Christian; a realistic, believable anti-hero who makes mistakes and continually proves himself to be human. He’s not a skilled secret agent or an unstoppable force — he’s a regular bloke and a loving father looking to take out his grief and rage on those responsible for his daughter’s death. Each clash is an effort, and each fight is a rough mess whereby regular household items become lethal weapons. Never before has the average toolbox provided such a deadly arsenal. Added to this, towards the film’s end, Christian gradually begins to realise that everyone — himself included — is guilty in his daughter’s death, and he struggles to find someone to blame. It’s a commendable, thought-provoking twist on the usual vigilante movie formula. Not to mention, it’s easy to relate to Christian’s situation. Fortunately, Peter Marshall’s emotionally-charged performance as Christian is an absolute tour de force. Alongside him, Caroline Marohasy is alternately vulnerable and resolute as Alice. Meanwhile, the bad guys, as can be expected, are little more than empty ciphers, but each of the actors portraying the antagonists are wholly convincing.
Is The Horseman original? No, not at all — speaking from a narrative perspective, it’s a very standard fare which borrows liberally from Death Wish and other vigilante flicks, with the clichés being thrown into a uniquely Australian setting to distinguish it from similar productions. Yet, this picture remains a tough-as-nails, badass revenge flick that pulls no punches. It’s not a film for the family or for the moderately squeamish, but action junkies should tremendously enjoy The Horseman.