Although I said in my previous review, of Long Weekend (1978), that I most strongly favor multi-faceted movies which handle the totality of narrative filmmaking with depth and skill, I can also appreciate a movie that knows how to do one thing very well and focuses on it like a laser. Greg Mclean’s Rogue (2007) is a lean animal-attack thriller that delivers exactly what it promises and little more, and therefore doesn’t suffer from distracting failures in areas that don’t directly serve its tense purpose.
River guide Radha Mitchell leads a boatload of nine tourists on a leisurely cruise through a picturesque stretch of Australia's Northern Territory, but the group runs into trouble when a short detour lands them in the hunting grounds of a giant killer crocodile. Mclean's script smartly keeps the characterizations low-key and the contrivances of plot conflict to a minimum. While there are hints of backstory to a few characters, it is just enough to add dimensionality and never threatens to steal focus from the primary concerns of surmounting fear and earning survival. Michael Vartan’s co-leading travel writer, in the hands of a clumsier technician dependent on tired screenwriting tropes, might have battled and overcome personal demons in addition to reptiles, but in Mclean’s hands, he is a realistic everyman singularly focused on a terrible situation that packs all the drama necessary. The same quality of reserve pervades all of Mclean's script choices as well as the performances he elicits from his cast, with notables like Sam Worthington (just before his brief Hollywood “leading man” breakthrough), John Jarratt (playing completely against his Wolf Creek (2005) persona), and a teenage Mia Wasikowska, all of whom deftly underplay the script’s few potential cliches.
Mclean — whose 2005 Outback thriller Wolf Creek brought international attention to the decade's Ozploitation revival — understands that the characters in Rogue are not the stars of his movie, a position reserved instead for the giant reptile that stalks them. His sparing early glimpses of the croc are effectively convincing, with the special effects only suffering from scrutiny during the more extended interactions near the end, by which time the movie has earned enough credit to overlook its budget limitations. Unlike Razorback (1984), where the title hog was a narratively neglected cipher used as an excuse for expressive set-pieces, the crocodile in Rogue is a believable real-world beast with discernible habits and ruthless intentions, making it coherently and consistently fearsome.
Stylistically, Mclean hits on exactly the right natural tone, unassumingly allowing his characters to work their way into a dangerous environment without contrivance or overselling a menacing atmosphere through invasive aesthetic foreshadowing. Mclean's style during the opening act might even be called, non-pejoratively, “lazy” — relaxed, basking in the gorgeously captured scenery, drifting along and lulled by Frank Tetaz’ sawing musical score — as he judiciously resists impressing anything upon the viewer, very much like the stealth predatory nature of the crocodile who gives no warning before its attack. Mclean's touch is so light and economical, it’s almost easy to miss the subtly amusing riff on The Lion King’s “Circle of Life” during Rogue’s opening minutes.
No one is going to mistake Rogue for elevated human drama or a complex exploration of man vs nature — or a rare masterpiece like Jaws (1975) which successfully combines high and low art — but it is a fine specimen of tense, single-minded survival action that hits its simple and well-chosen technical marks with precision and the appropriate spirit of brutal fun that accompanies watching small people being stalked and eaten by a large amphibious creature.