“Crushed” (2015): Murder and Mystery Plague an Australian Family’s Vineyard

Australian thriller Crushed combines a murder mystery with family politics and some conspiracy theory elements, as well. The result is an ambitious effort that aims high and succeeds rather well, thanks to solid performances and writer/director Megan Riakos’ deft direction of her own compelling screenplay.

Ellia (Sarah Bishop) has alienated herself from her family for a few years after the tragic death of her twin brother. She returns to the family’s vineyards in Mudgee, a rural town in New South Wales, after hearing the news that her father died in a winery accident. Soon after her arrival, her mother Sophie (Roxane Wilson) is arrested for suspicion of murdering her father, and Sophie’s affair with the husband’s brother David (Les Hill) is also revealed. (This all happens early on in the first act; I will keep this review as spoiler-free as possible.)

Ellia’s mother and uncle are bitter about her abandoning the family and its wine business, though she gets a bit more sympathy at times from her younger siblings Harriet (Millie Spencer-Brown) and Zac (Remy Brand), who are trying to keep the family business together in the face of the coming winemaking season.

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Ellie (Sarah Bishop, left) and her sister Harriet (Millie Spencer-Brown) examine the area where their father died under mysterious circumstances in Crushed.

Ellie finds the local authorities, including her ex-boyfriend Lucas (Robert Preston), stand-offish in her own investigation into the possible murder of her father, and the deeper she tries to go, the more isolated and in danger she becomes. Events get even more complicated when a possible conspiracy involving dangerous fertilizer, which may have ruined the crops of the family’s neighbors and given their daughter cancer, is added to the mix. Again, I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that the body count in Crushed is not limited to just one.

Megan Riakos packs a lot into her debut feature film but manages to balance all of the elements well while keeping the tension rising. She knows how to build suspense and keep the story engaging.

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Ellie (Sarah Bishop) finds herself in dangerous territory when she tries to unravel the mystery of how her father really died.

The gorgeous landscape of Australian wine country makes for a fine visual backdrop. Cinematographer Michael Steel captures the scenery beautifully and he realizes faster paced action sequences and other gripping scenes equally well. Aaron Kenny’s thrilling score is a fine fit throughout and heightens the proceedings wonderfully.

The cast is solid, with Sarah Bishop giving a memorable turn. Her character Ellie is alternately tough and vulnerable, and Bishop finds the nuances in this role and does a fine job with them. Remy Brand also stands out as Ellie’s emotionally troubled brother Zac. Millie Spencer-Brown also gets a chance to shine as sister Harriet. The rest of the actors are quite good, as well, though some of the characters have a little less shading to them than others, giving some performers only one or two emotions with which to work. Some of these characters are red herrings but Megan Riakos follows the “everyone is a suspect” rule of thumb for thrillers well without falling back on stereotypes.

Crushed digging
A family’s vineyard in the New South Wales countryside holds the secrets to murder and a neighbor’s failing crops and daughter’s illness.

Crushed is a truly independent movie made using Kickstarter funds. The professionalism both behind and in front of the camera overcome any budgetary limitations, though. For those seeking an engaging thriller with a unique backdrop full of local color and a surprising climax, to boot, Crushed is well worth seeking out.

Crushed: (3.8 / 5)

Joseph Perry

Joseph Perry’s formative years were spent watching classic monster movies (starting with “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Godzilla Vs. the Thing”) and TV series (starting with “The Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits”), Bob Wilkins’ “Creature Features” and Roy Shires’ Big Time Wrestling (two northern California legends); reading Silver Age and Bronze Age Gold Key, Dell, Charlton, Marvel, and DC comics; and writing mimeographed newsletters about the original “Planet of the Apes” film and TV series. More recently, he has written for “Filmfax” magazine, is the foreign correspondent reporter for the “Horror News Radio” podcast, and is a regular contributing writer to “Phantom of the Movies’s VideoScope” magazine, occasionally proudly co-writing articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right. A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.