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.