Sweet Country, the first conventional feature that Warwick Thornton has made since Samson and Delilah (2009), his début, puts the lie to its title. It opens with a shot of boiling tar and only gets angrier from there. The film was christened a western after its première at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, though it is set a decade after World War I, far removed from the period we associate with the traditional oater. This doesn’t stop Thornton from invoking the genre and the medium explicitly, with 1906 film The Story of the Kelly Gang at one point projected onto a sheet outside an outback pub. The same pub is presided over by a madam whose bustier looks decades out of fashion, and the film is littered with well-worn lines like ‘I am the law’ – courtesy of an unsmiling Bryan Brown – that would seem to locate it squarely within the genre.
Sweet Country’s divergence is in its point of view: the white homesteaders and sheriffs are total bastards almost to a man. The worst is a war veteran and alcoholic named Harry March, played by Ewen Leslie. He is the new outback neighbour to a kindly priest, Fred Smith (Sam Neill) – the Jack Thompson-in-Jimmie Blacksmith role. Another local, Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), is a moustachioed would-be farmer with a half-Aboriginal child whom he treats with the same snorting impatience he does the other Indigenous farmhands. All three live outside the local town, a one-street affair run by the local police sergeant (Brown). All of them bar one form a hunting party when an Indigenous man, Sam (Hamilton Morris), shoots a white one in self-defence and goes on the lam.
Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) head deep into country, where they are forced to contend with hostile Indigenous tribesmen as well as the constabulary on their tail. The latter is bamboozled easily enough, with a dehydrated Sergeant Fletcher eventually led onto the salt flats. Serving as his own cinematographer, Thornton positions Bryan Brown at the edge of both sides of the frame in a series of wide shots, vividly framing his utter disorientation.
Portentousness hangs over the whole thing, with the director and his editor, Nick Meyers, splicing split-second flashbacks and flash-forwards into the action throughout. A young policeman’s imminent death is cut to, briefly, seconds after we meet him. A shot of Sam and his wife running hand-in-hand to the hills is flung up, almost cruelly, right after the possibility of freedom becomes a moot point. The starkness of the editing is underlined by occasional flashes of gore, as well as the director’s decision to forgo a musical score. The only tune comes from Fred Smith, warbling a hymn over the campfire in one of the film’s rare stabs at humour.
Steven McGregor and David Tranter’s screenplay is less delicate than Thornton’s direction, but this might not be their fault. A thuddingly heavy-handed line – ‘What chance has this country got?’ – from Neill’s character towards the end is delivered with the actor’s back turned and in a wide shot; it might well have been added in post-production. The line’s literal-mindedness stands out all the more, because it comes during a sequence of formal idiosyncrasy: a Malick-like montage that movingly jumps between the aforementioned flashbacks and impressionistic images of a church-raising – as well as of the bloody vigilante justice doled out by the same community.
On a certain level the film is defiantly anti-Australian and makes no bones about it. But Sweet Country nevertheless presents its sole figure of governmental authority, a justice of the peace played by Matt Day, as unexpectedly enlightened and ultimately just, even if the trial he presides over changes nothing for the man in the dock. Given the condemnatory tone of everything else, the resolution of the trial is nicely unpredictable, if perhaps – in absolving the state – thematically inconsistent.
Hamilton Morris is riveting as Sam, with an internalised performance that is compelling but recessive, partly because the film doesn’t actually adopt his point of view, preferring that of Philomac, the Indigenous son of Kennedy. It is from Philomac’s line of sight, behind a door, that we witness the shooting that kicks everything off, and it is the boy’s final rejection of his inheritance that provides the film with its coda. A memorable scene earlier on has him talking to another farmhand, an older man stolen from his country. The difference between them, Philomac says, is that ‘this is my country.’ The man just laughs. ‘You’re a blackfella, just like me,’ he says. ‘Poor thing.’
Sweet Country (Transmission Films), 113 minutes, directed by Warwick Thornton. In cinemas 25 January 2018.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.