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High Country, Binge review: dark and potent crime drama

The Victorian-shot series starring Leah Purcell stands out from the pack with its authentically shady sense of place.

It’s getting so you can’t visit one of Australia’s many picturesque tourist towns without tripping over a pile of corpses.

Even Victoria’s high country, previously known mostly for the occasional wild horse, is racking up an impressive body count. Earlier this year we had the Eric Bana-led murder mystery The Dry 2: Force of Nature; now there’s High Country, a title which sounds like a tale of small-scale drug dealers and the big time crims who prey on them but (going by the first few episodes at least) turns out to feature pretty much every crime but drug dealing. Guess they’ve got to save something for Season 2.

Read: Force of Nature: The Dry 2 review – no damp squib

City detective Andie Whitford (Leah Purcell) is the new top cop in the small town of Broken Ridge. In something of a twist for this genre of crime drama, it’s not her home town that she left years ago only to be drawn back by a mystery from her youth; instead she and her family – partner Helen (Sara Wiseman) and their daughter – have left the city after a big case put her in the sights of some very dangerous people. She’s hoping for a break from constant threats and danger.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Popular departing chief Sam Dyson (Ian McElhinney) gives her his full support. Not every other cop – superior or underling – feels the same about her arrival. There’s a feral element beneath the touristy façade too, with the local teens looking like a bunch of bad seeds and the local poachers (who go around ‘ringbarking’ deer – cutting off the heads for the antlers and leaving the bodies to rot) letting their opinion of the law be known loud and clear.

Violence

There’s definitely plenty of small-scale crime and violence around the place. When Helen goes for a bookkeeping job at an artists’ retreat, the job interview ends with the owner (Linda Cropper) firing a shotgun to scare off a violent ex attacking her pregnant niece.

Read: Binge – new shows streaming March 2024

But the big mystery is the disappearance into the bush of a big city doctor (Francis Greenslade) who murdered his family for reasons that remain unknown despite a growing number of sinister postcards and ominous clues.

A missing person search, no matter how big, isn’t enough to base a whole series on. Fortunately a quick check through the records tells Andie that there’s been a string of suspicious disappearances in the high country of late. Sam says that’s just how things work up here, but his aura of folksy Irish competence is starting to crack even before he shows her his conspiracy wall (actually, an entire conspiracy room) devoted to trying to solve the murder of a local teen five years ago.

It’s a little surprising he needs a whole room, or any evidence at all, considering the only suspect he’s considering – former local teacher Damien Stark (Henry Nixon) – came into the station claiming to have had a psychic vision of the dead teen’s location that turned out to be surprisingly accurate.

Read: Apples Never Fall, Binge review – a big twist inward

For Sam, that’s all the proof he needs (unfortunately the courts disagreed), but when Damien starts having visions about the current mystery, Andie’s not sure whether he’s a serial killer or a legit visionary.

Genre fans know the fact that he’s the prime suspect in episode one means there are more twists ahead, and this quickly shapes up to be the kind of series where the new cop ends up relying much more on the local outcasts than the established hierarchy. Enter former forestry worker turned tour guide Owen Cooper (Aaron Pederson), who clearly knows the local country better than anyone. Whether he’s using that knowledge for good or evil remains to be seen.

Strong cast

This has a strong cast and it gives them plenty to do; this season runs for eight episodes, and the first two establish enough plot threads for a series twice as long. With so much else going on, the mystery is a bit thin to start with, but there’s a lot of pieces to put in place and once things get going events move at a satisfyingly rapid pace.

Some characters’ roles are fairly obvious – Sam is clearly on a journey of his own that’s going to clash with Andie’s new role – while others could just fade away … or have their plotlines cut short by whoever’s sticking bodies up hollow trees. The result is enjoyably messy; the setting feels like a town full of stories, not a place where a collection of suspects wait for their turn in the spotlight.

What makes this series really stand out from the increasingly crowded rural murder pack is the sense of place. Broken Ridge quickly feels authentically shady, with a plausible mix of upright locals and stuck-in-their-ways cops keeping the lid on a rotten underbelly. Around that there’s the high country itself; Andie’s newcomer status provides more than one opportunity for her to just stand in front of a majestic view and just take it all in.

Plus, she’s the rare big city cop who rides a horse, which tends to come in handy.

Purcell plays Andie as wary, not so much out of place as constantly on guard. That’s how we know the town isn’t a safe space; if she can’t relax, neither can we. While the mystery here is the obvious hook, at its heart this is a series about a cop sent to tame a lawless (well, by rural Victorian standards at least) town. The direction to pay attention to in High Country isn’t up, it’s west – the wild west to be exact.

The first two episodes of High Country are available on Binge from 8.30pm on 19 March, with new episodes streaming weekly.

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4 out of 5 stars

Actors:

Leah Purcell, Aaron Pedersen, Sara Wiseman, Ian McElhinney

Director:

Kevin Carlin, Beck Cole

Format: TV Series

Country: Australia

Release: 19 March 2024

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.