Despite the integral plot element of cannibalism, there's no abundance of body parts or organs floating about in Van Diemen's Land. In fact, the film is remarkably light on the red, and yet there are nerve-crushing moments in which all semblance of humanity goes out the window. That loss of moral compass in the face of survival is the cornerstone of this fact-based story about a prison break that went horribly wrong: Eight prisoners in a Tasmanian penal colony overthrow their sole guard only to learn that the coast isn't as clear as they thought, that their only true course of action is to either wait to be recaptured (and almost certainly executed) or flee aimlessly into the wilderness.
What ensues is the fastest case of survivalist cannibalism ever recorded. The script, written by Jonathan Auf Der Heide and Oscar Redding, is faithfully based on several confessions from the last man standing. This is not another Wendigo film about men who eat other men and gain their strengths. It's not a plane-crash story about unfortunate athletes who must devour each other or die. Van Diemen's Land is a gritty, manly, teeth-baring look at what happens when a group of people must eat one of their own to survive. Then tension comes from the basic animalistic imperative to survive at all costs ... not from the innate "grossness" of man eating man.
Van Diemen's Land is a beautifully shot game of numbers. Once the decision is made to serve the first person up to get the wrong end of an ax (and they almost always use the blunt, hammer side, not the sharp bone-splitter), it becomes a question of who is next. It's a situation in which no man can be trusted, a situation I already find particularly fascinating
Van Diemen's Land is paced like a slowly smoldering nightmare you cannot wake up from. This general, albeit intentional, lack of pep as these men's bodies wilt to bone is bound to be an obstacle for some who feel that the film drags a bit too long. Admittedly it could benefit from a quickening in a few slow spots, but it's certainly not a deal breaker and fits the overall mood of languishing futility. Plus, the film is so beautifully shot that even if someone has a problem with periods of inaction, it's a ravenous feast for the eyes.
Even without Auf Der Heide's eye for stunning and daunting locations, there's a never-ending sense of realism woven through every shot. If the script calls for the characters to swim through a freezing, raging torrent of water, the actors are actually swimming through a freezing, raging torrent of water. There was no actor coddling, no one to rush up and wrap a blanket around these poor men. The results are bracing, tortured performances that immediately anchor you with the characters even if it does take half the movie to peg down the names and origins of each character.
But names and origins don't matter. These characters have already been banished from society to the ends of Earth, but even if the world doesn't care about them, we care about them. We feel for each and every swing of the ax, we feel for both the person swinging and the person being swung into, and that's what's great about the film. Jonathan Auf Der Heide doesn't need to set up scares, he doesn't need to film the thing from a stalker's perspective, he merely walks you hand-in-hand with these men on their death march through Van Diemen's Land, a truly alien world and time. It's a long walk, but it's a brutal, daring, memorable walk.