There’s a burning intensity to Sweet Country, a tale of revenge in the Australian outback where men turn against each other with guns and are violent with women and children. Although much of the violence is not shown in the frame, it is not this that gives the film its intensity as much as it is the passionate outrage that director Warwick Thornton brings to this work.
It was the same with Samson and Delilah, the breakthrough feature for the Indigenous writer-director, a film that took the breath away with its exquisite and forlorn beauty. It won Thornton the prize for best first feature at Cannes in 2009.
Although the focus in Samson and Delilah was on the impact of social dysfunction and neglect on two teenagers in Alice Springs, it spared its young people from despair. Sweet Country is a tougher film and the mood less compromising.
In the mythology of the American western, justice is won through the gunman, sheriff or outsider. Here we see it won through due process, only to be lost.
In the far reaches of the outback, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a veteran of the Great War, is struggling to get his cattle run established – and to pull himself together. A kindly neighbour, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), sends his Aboriginal farm hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) to help him out with his cattle yard. If only the neighbourly act could have turned out as it was intended. Kelly’s wife is raped.
While Smith, a mild man of god, is away in town, March arrives at his house in search of the mischievous Indigenous boy he chained up, suspecting him of theft. March fires into the house several times. The boy is hiding nearby, but Kelly is within and he shoots back in defence of himself and his wife, killing March outright.
Kelly has shot a white man and knows he is doomed. It was the ultimate sin in the outback even late in the 1920s. Like the popular hero whose name he shares, he heads for the wilderness all the same, as he and Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) make a run for it.
They remain on the run until they realise that Lizzie is pregnant with March’s child (the result of the rape) and they return to town to submit themselves to white justice. One of the film’s most powerful scenes captures this return, as they sit in the dust of the main street, waiting in the early morning for the police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) to arrive at work.
The space between words was so powerful in Samson and Delilah too. Here again, the Aboriginal people have little to say in their own defence, the sad fact being that they expect to be ignored.
Working from a script by David Tranter and Steven McGregor, Thornton tells another twentieth century story of the impact of white Australia on the Aboriginal people. It is drawn from fact and took place within the lifetime of people who are still with us.
Rolf de Heer’s brilliant film, The Tracker (2003) with David Gulpilil, covered similar territory, also drawing attention to the hunting parties and retributive justice on the frontier early in the 20th century. In the mythology of the American western, justice is won through the gunman, sheriff or outsider. Here we see it won through due process, only to be lost.
Although the red centre can be appreciated in all its glory through Thornton’s images – he is also cinematographer – ‘sweet country’ is not so much a place as a state of mind.
The title could mean several things. It is heavily laced with irony. As a place where one can find sanctuary or solace, it exists only in the imagination. As a place that could be great, maybe it ain’t just yet. Not until some things are fixed.
Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 50 minutes