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With sparing use of dialogue and a gaze both stoical and empathetic, Warwick Thornton’s haunting 2009 debut, Samson & Delilah, drew us into the isolation of a pair of young indigenous Australian lovers, driven by violence to hit the road in search of a better life. Working with bold assurance on a bigger canvas in the melancholy outback Western Sweet Country, Thornton shifts from the contemporary world to 1929 to follow another couple on the run. The unethical treatment of Aboriginal people again is at the core of this solemn frontier saga, elevated by the natural grandeur of its visual storytelling.
Unlike, say, The Rover, David Michod’s disappointing follow-up to Animal Kingdom, this film successfully marries the archetypal characters and scenario of a traditional Western with a culturally specific grounding in Australian history, politics, folklore and racial tension.
Following back-to-back competition premieres at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, Sweet Country should translate well to international art houses. The cast features Oz screen veterans Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, though it’s the affecting work of the nonprofessional Aboriginal actors and the magnificent settings in Central Australia’s MacDonnell Ranges that supply the considerable dramatic weight behind Thornton’s sober realism.
The title has a biting double edge. Local lawman Sergeant Fletcher (Brown) returns to town after several days on a manhunt across red rock, ochre desert, scrubland and silvery salt flats, observing to Nell (Anni Finsterer), who tends bar at the local pub and shares her bed with him, that there’s beautiful cattle country out there where they could build a different life. But the land is also harsh and unforgiving, stolen from its rightful owners, breeding a cruelty that is stronger than either religion or justice.
Working from a screenplay by David Tranter and Steven McGregor, Thornton strips away much of the standard exposition, occasionally jumping backwards or forwards in time with a quick edit flash to reveal key details with great economy. The movie opens with a shot of liquid boiling on a campfire while a fight between a white station owner and a black stockman erupts off-camera. We later learn that the Aboriginal man who refused to be shoved around was Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris). The incident prompted him and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) to move to the property of Fred Smith (Neill), a preacher without a church who believes “we are all equal in the eyes of the Lord.”
The new owner of a neighboring property, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), makes it clear he doesn’t share that view of racial equality and mutual respect when he asks where the preacher got his “blackstock,” referring to Sam and Lizzie. But despite his misgivings, Fred agrees to let the couple go help with some short-term work on Harry’s station, naively assuming they will be treated decently. Wrong. Harry, a punchy alcoholic traumatized by his World War I experiences, forces himself on Lizzie, who knows better than to try resisting. His threats scare her into remaining silent about the assault. Soon after, Harry dismisses them curtly, with neither thanks nor food for their troubles.
Thornton and the writers draw parallels between slavery and the essentially free labor provided by indigenous Australians under British Crown laws of that time. Those attitudes inform white men’s warped sense of having a claim on black women’s bodies. Reference also is made to the ease with which government representatives could legally remove Aboriginal or mixed-blood children from their families.
That last threat surfaces briefly around 14-year-old Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), the “half-caste” son of Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), another local station owner no less overtly racist than Harry.
Philomac partly functions as the eyes and ears of the story. When he and Mick’s stockman Archie (Gibson John) are loaned out to Harry in exchange for a bottle of whiskey, Philomac innocently sparks the man’s rage, getting chained overnight to a rock as punishment. The kid escapes and heads to the preacher’s place to hide, with Harry on his heels in furious pursuit the next day, armed and unhinged. He starts shooting up the house, and Sam kills him in self-defense, his death shown in graphically bloody detail.
While the script is drawn from tribal stories handed down by Tranter’s grandfather, the character of Sam is based on an actual case of an Aboriginal man arrested and tried for murdering a white man in Central Australia in the 1920s. This provides the bones for a muscular drama in the classic Western mold, albeit with some twists, unfolding roughly over three acts.
A search posse is formed after Sam and Lizzie flee, made up of Fletcher, his deputy and Mick, with Archie serving as tracker, and Fred coming along to make sure Sam is brought back alive. Sam’s expert bushman skills allow them to stay a safe distance ahead of the group, but revelations during the journey cause them to rethink their survival plan. In the final section, an out-of-town judge (Matt Day) arrives to preside over a fair trial in a makeshift courtroom on the street out front of the pub, yielding an unexpected outcome.
Some of the film’s best scenes unfold during the pursuit, when the posse ventures into tribal lands resistant to white rule, and the landscape itself takes on an almost hallucinatory quality, seeming to reject the intruders’ authority.
Thornton is less interested in the standard mechanics of a chase thriller (there’s no score or nervous editing to hustle things along), and the film’s pacing is notably unhurried for this type of story. But the amount of time and attention spent on Sam and Lizzie as central characters — played with immense dignity, tenderness and pathos by the untrained actors — gives the story a quiet urgency. Like the title characters in Samson & Delilah, they communicate often via nonverbal shorthand (minimal snatches of dialogue are in the Aboriginal Arrernte language), though the emotional exchanges between them are complex and moving.
Given how determined the locals are to brand Sam as a murderous criminal, regardless of the actual circumstances, it seems hardly coincidental that his family name is identical to that of Ned Kelly. The infamous Australian bushranger’s outlaw gang is celebrated in a movie being screened here for a raucous town audience on a suspended sheet arranged by a traveling picture-show man, a regular fixture of country life at that time. (The period production and costume design is pleasingly understated throughout.)
Philomac is a terrific character, played by the Doolan brothers with an alert perceptiveness and an agreeable hint of cheeky opportunism. And as Archie, with his spectacular veil of silver facial hair, John is a real find, an absolute natural as a character who walks the line between self-preserving subservience and mostly silent witnessing of systemic injustice. This is echoed in gentle coming-of-age elements that suggest Philomac learning to navigate that same tricky balance.
If the white characters are less satisfyingly drawn, providing limited room for nuance from Brown and Neill, in particular, that’s perhaps unsurprising given where the heart of the story lies. Though their flavorless dialogue doesn’t help.
But in terms of its visual command, the movie could hardly be more expressive. In addition to directing, Thornton is an experienced cinematographer who grew up in Central Australia, so his connection to the land informs every handsomely composed widescreen image and every measured camera movement. Working here with his son, Dylan River, he keeps the breathtaking panoramas to a minimum, instead favoring images of rough but imposing terrain, captured in stunning natural light, that breathe sweeping epic dimensions into the story’s tragic human conflicts.
Production company: Bunya Productions
Cast: Bryan Brown, Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, Thomas M. Wright, Ewen Leslie, Gibson John, Natassia Gorey-Furber, Matt Day, Anni Finsterer, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan
Director: Warwick Thornton
Screenwriters: David Tranter, Steven McGregor
Producers: Greer Simpkin, David Jowsey
Executive producers: Craig Deeker, Christina Kennedy, Trevor Kennedy, Scott Otto Anderson, Oliver Lawrance, Andrew Mackie, Richard Payten
Directors of photography: Warwick Thornton, Dylan River
Production designer: Tony Cronin
Costume designer: Heather Wallace
Editor: Nick Meyers
Casting: Anousha Zarkesh
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Memento Films International
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