“What hope has this country got.”
This is the question raised at the end of Sweet Country, a soulful, haunting outback Western directed by Warwick Thornton. Taking aim at the racial tensions and power structures of colonial Australia, the film is an incendiary reminder of a shameful past that continues to affect the present, and of the emotional and political power of genre films.
Thornton covers similar themes here to his 2009 debut, Samson and Delilah, but through the more audience-friendly prism of the Western genre. Set in the Northern Territory in 1929, Sweet Country follows Sam (Hamilton Morris), an Indigenous farmhand who works at a cattle station run by Fred Smith (Sam Neill) with his wife and niece. Smith, a Christian pioneer who makes a point of treating his workers equally, nevertheless allows them to be ‘borrowed’ for work by a drunken, brutish newcomer, Harry March (Ewen Leslie). After Sam is forced to kill March in self-defence during a violent misunderstanding, he and his family flee into the country, pursued by a small posse fronted by local police chief Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown).
This is a stark, sparse chase drama, filled with equal measures of beauty and cruelty. There is little dialogue and music, and the narrative meanders at a slow pace, with digressions intended more to reveal theme than to push forward the plot. This is not to say the film isn’t tightly structured or exciting; the silence is often punctuated by short bursts of tense, brutal violence. These instances are well staged and shot, using wide shots of the unfolding action with a clear sense of geography. Thornton is very good at visually doling out information unknown to the characters to generate suspense; the sand trail from an escaped slave’s chain, and the inciting confrontation, where one character doesn’t know the other has a weapon, are standout moments. The striking cinematography, shot by Thornton himself, captures the twin nature of the Australian outback; a landscape that’s as beautiful and lively as it is hot, indifferent and oppressive.
This style of poetic visual storytelling drives the narrative. From the opening shot of a billy being brought to a boil against the sounds of an escalating, racially charged fight, to a long take of Harry March methodically shutting out all the light over the scene of his monstrous act, these images communicate so much about the setting and characters with relatively simple techniques. Although the film is very much a classical Western in structure and style, there is some formal experimentation that gives it a modern edge. Silent, seconds long flash forwards to upcoming events are used frequently, and give the narrative a sense of fatalism. In a land structured and run as cruelly as it is here, the tragic events that occur are a doomed inevitability.
Glimmers of humanity and warmth shine through some of the characters on display, nearly all of whom are given nuance and depth. The performances are stellar: Hamilton Morris is excellent at communicating Sam’s inner turmoil and quiet dignity with very little; the fear in his quivering hands and eyes late in the film is particularly powerful after his emotional restraint early on. Sam Neill, always a dependable screen presence, injects a welcome bolt of humour and heart into the film as the well-intentioned but naive preacher, and Bryan Brown excels at portraying a volatile mix of anger, arrogance, and authority that spirals into insecurity.
I say ‘nearly’ because the women of the film aren’t given the same amount of complexity and screen time; most get barely a line. This feels particularly short sighted when it comes to Sam’s wife, whose immense trauma at the hands of Harry March is used as little more than a plot point to evaluate the justice of Sam’s actions.
The image of the boiling billy is a good metaphor for the tone of Sweet Country. Underneath the beauty and silence is a simmering, righteous fury at the injustices Indigenous Australian’s suffered in colonial Australia, and have suffered since. A particularly charged observation of the film is the ironies and failures of the ‘civilised’ European values, laws and systems that are being put into place. The new form of law that Sam is criminally tried under clashes with the frontier justice favoured by the Colonisers, who idolise Ned Kelly but call for the hanging of a similarly ‘moral’ black outlaw. Another telling sequence late in the film visually compares the creation of a noose and hanging platform with the building of Fred Smith’s new church. Old lore and culture has been destroyed and replaced with Anglo-Saxon norms, values and social structures, at a great cost to the original owners of the land.
Also explored is the way in which White Australia’s social problems and insecurities trickle down the hierarchy of power to affect the Indigenous characters; Harry March’s racist violence is intensified by PTSD from his time in the Great War, and the Fletcher’s grudge against Sam is driven more by his insecurity at being unable to best in him in outback survival, than from a desire for justice.
What’s impressive is the way these themes are made accessible by being delivered through the conventions of a Western, in a way that never dulls the movie’s power. Sweet Country’s slow pace, sparse, meandering narrative, and brutality may put off some. However, if you are willing to go along for the ride, you will find a tense and timely story of an individual trapped within an inequitable system.
Sweet Country is in cinemas now.