Stolen land, peoples “kept in their place” through physical and sexual violence, the erosion of culture by displacement and subservience. For Americans like me, this brings to mind the injustices inflicted upon Native Americans and black slaves. Yet, similar stories have played out on every other populated continent.
Warwick Thornton’s excellent revisionist western, Sweet Country, makes clear that the instrumentation may change, but the tune of empire and colonization remains the same around the world. Set in Australia’s Northern Territory in the 1920s, and based on a true story, it illustrates the tragic outcome of the clash of white Australians and the original people of this land.
Thornton’s film opens with Sam Kelly, a westernized Aboriginal, living peaceably with his wife Lizzie on property now owned by the settler Fred Smith. Though the white/dark hierarchy still exists among them, it is muted, as Fred is relatively enlightened for his time and place. Deeply religious, he tells Harry March, a white newcomer to the area and alcoholic veteran of the Great War, that all people are equal in the eyes of God.
Put off by his neighbor’s vulgarity, Fred only reluctantly allows Sam and Lizzie to travel with Harry to help repair his property. Harry verbally abuses his guests, even refusing to feed them during their stay. One afternoon while Sam is herding Harry’s cattle, Harry rapes Lizzie (a scene that is handled with the discretion and awful dread it needs). Soon after, Harry gruffly orders the two of them off his land.
Not much time passes before Sam’s and Harry’s paths cross again. Threatened with murder, Sam shoots and kills Harry. Though acting in self-defense, a posse is rounded up by the nearest lawman to track and capture the fleeing Sam and Lizzie.
The body of Thornton’s film is taken up with the chase. Throughout Sweet Country, the director displays an evocative sense of place and time. The remote scrubland and salt flats are vividly brought to life. So is the frontier village, with its eroded signs and structures, lacking the civilizing influences of courthouse and church, where a saloon serves as the only gathering place. Everyone is coated with multiple layers of sweat and dirt, in this land where water is a precious resource.
Thornton also intersperses the main narrative thrust of his film with momentary, often wordless, flashbacks and flash-forwards. Sweet Country’s visuals, coupled with these temporal fragmentations, furnish it with a dreamlike quality that is sometimes disorienting, sometimes hallucinatory. Though the pacing is unhurried and the soundtrack spare, I was enthralled from beginning to end.
Dialogue is scarce among the film’s characters, any of whom could be used as a dictionary illustration for the word laconic. The isolation of the white settlers and the need for the Aboriginals to suppress their true thoughts make lengthy conversation a rarity.This results in characters who are more types than fleshed-out individuals, which actually works in this case. Sam is an Aboriginal who may wear a white man’s clothes, but he is willing to fight back if pushed too far. Other Aboriginal characters show other ways of coping with subjugation: a tracker named Archie docilely submits to his white “masters,” while a group of completely unassimilated men violently fends off the posse’s intrusion into their territory.
The whites who have settled in the Northern Territory are hardened, mostly brutish sorts. The head of the posse, Sergeant Fletcher, gives token lip service to justice; while the regional judge seems as though he might be interested in learning the truth of the clash between Sam and Harry. Only Fred sticks his neck out consistently for the original residents of the land, joining the posse in an attempt to ensure that Sam comes to no extrajudicial harm.
The Aboriginal actors at the heart of Sweet Country are all playing their first film roles here, yet all are fully convincing. Hamilton Morris, as Sam Kelly, has to shoulder most of the film’s weight; but Natassia Gorey Furber (his wife Lizzie), Gibson John (the tracker Archie), and the twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan (jointly portraying the taciturn, devious adolescent Philomac) are just as good.
Thornton recruited two fixtures of Down Under cinema, Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, to play Sergeant Fletcher and Fred Smith, respectively. Brown’s 1980s heyday as a lead actor in films like Breaker Morant, F/X, and Gorillas in the Mist has long since passed, but he still does solid work. Sam Neill had his breakthrough opposite Laura Dern and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, but this film and 2016’s delightful Hunt for the Wilderpeople show off his talented second career in lower-budget, thoughtfully independent cinema.
Sweet Country at a couple of points flirts dangerously with being on-the-nose in its commentary, including its opening close-up of a boiling campfire pot as white/black violence is heard off screen. Fortunately, these are the exceptions. Far more often, the messaging is more subtle, as when the white townspeople, who cheer on outlaw Ned Kelly (Australia’s Jesse James) in a silent movie, are the same ones who cry out reflexively for the blood of dark-hued Sam Kelly.
In one scene, Sergeant Fletcher looks around and states this land is “sweet country” for its imported livestock. Yet the original inhabitants, offensively called “blackstock” by Harry in the film’s first scene, have no such luck. Sam Neill’s preacher character turns prophetic when he proclaims that his country has no hope of a good future, as long as it holds to a founding myth of bloodless innocence. As an American, this is distressingly resonant, living in another country where black lives still don’t matter, and the racism effected by the white hegemony still has deadly consequences.
4 out of 5 stars