Film of the week: Sweet Country, a landmark Aboriginal western

Warwick Thornton upends The Searchers with this deftly shaded and powerful account of the hunting of an indigenous couple wanted for the murder of a white man in the 1920s Australian outback.

Jason Anderson
Updated:

from our April 2018 issue

Natassia Gorey-Furber as Lizzie and Hamilton Morris as Sam Kelly in Sweet Country

Natassia Gorey-Furber as Lizzie and Hamilton Morris as Sam Kelly in Sweet Country

Like so many of the westerns to which it serves as a bold and compelling corrective, Sweet Country contains moments of great nuance and richness alongside others that are about as subtle as a blow to the head from a rifle butt. The latter description may fit the film’s opening shot, the first of many fleeting, achronological images whose full context and significance only become clear at later junctures in Warwick Thornton’s third feature, which is based on the true story of an Aboriginal man arrested and tried for the murder of a white man in central Australia in the 1920s. As the soundtrack fills with the noises of an offscreen conflict and an angry cry of “You black bastard!”, the camera directs the gaze downwards to a pot of water heating on a fire. Already turbulent, the liquid becomes more so with the addition of a handful of dark powder and then another few handfuls of a white one. Evidently, the place this pot represents is just as ready to boil over.

As a western that foregrounds matters of racial divide and tension within a period setting but with a contemporary sensibility, Thornton’s film is hardly unprecedented. Nevertheless, most of the seemingly noble-minded Hollywood examples that acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ experience of colonial conquests still prioritise the redemptive arcs of white heroes, Scott Cooper’s Hostiles (2017) being the latest in a lineage that includes Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Dances with Wolves (1990). As for most Australian directors’ forays into the territory, Aboriginal characters remain at their stories’ peripheries even in revisionist exercises such as John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005). Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) could be seen as a partial model for Thornton’s similarly ruthless story of a man of the wrong race on the wrong side of the law, but Sweet Country’s complexity and sophistication still mark it as a landmark work of Indigenous cinema.

Sweet Country (2017)

Ironically, it’s the second recent film by an Indigenous director to function as a subversive riff on The Searchers (1956), a movie that’s surely as majestic as it is racially problematic. Maliglutit, the latest by Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk – who, like Thornton, made his international breakthrough with a Caméra d’Or win at Cannes – relocates the core elements of John Ford’s revenge tale to a formidable corner of the Canadian north. In Sweet Country, Bryan Brown’s dogged Sergeant Fletcher subs for John Wayne’s crusty Civil War veteran, as his pursuit of Aboriginal farmhand Sam, wanted for the killing of a white stockman, sends the film’s characters across landscapes as ruggedly beautiful as anything Ford and Winton C. Hoch captured in VistaVision. In the scene when Sam’s wife Lizzie is raped by the violent, bigoted newcomer Harry March, Thornton pays explicit homage to the iconic sight of Wayne’s darkened figure in a cabin doorway, though here we perceive the white man as a horrific threat, intentionally shutting the door and windows one by one so that his crime happens under veil of darkness.

Sweet Country (2017)

Working from a screenplay by Steven McGregor and David Tranter – the latter an Aboriginal sound recordist who worked on Thornton’s debut Samson & Delilah (2009), and whose grandfather was the source of the details about the original case – Thornton presents Ewen Leslie’s rancher March as the unambiguous monster of the story. Yet the film invites a more varied consideration of its other Anglo-Australians. As Fletcher’s belief in his rightness is shaken both by an act of mercy from Sam and by his own softer feelings towards the woman who tends the town pub, Brown allows his usual bravado to seep out in a slow leak. Though he initially seems just as brutal as March, Thomas M. Wright’s white farmer Kennedy gradually adopts a more fatherly demeanour towards his mixed-race son, a development that seems less positive when we witness the boy assume his pa’s attitudes to the ‘blackfellas’.

Likewise, the good intentions of Sam Neill’s preacher Fred and Matt Day’s visiting judge are duly noted, but their actions come to naught. As triumphant as it may feel to Fred, the construction of his church in the film’s final moments seems more like a dark omen, given the historical use of religion as a softer, gentler face for the power dynamics of colonialism that are presented in such stark terms here.

Thornton’s film benefits from exceptional performances from the whole ensemble, but it owes much of its power to Hamilton Morris as Sam and Natassia Gorey-Furber as the fearful, largely silent Lizzie. Try as they might to hide their rising anxiety, their bodies betray them via Lizzie’s morning-sickness retching or – as he listens to what he believes to be the building of his gallows outside his cell – Sam’s twitching legs. They are even less able to conceal the anguish they feel over their inability to protect one another from the indignities and cruelties that are their daily lot. Thornton makes sure that viewers feel those blows.

 

 

In the April 2018 issue of Sight & Sound

Red earth

A gripping outback western set in the 1920s, Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country exposes the racism and brutality at the heart of the colonial project, as a posse hunts down a pair of Indigenous Australians accused of murder. By Trevor Johnston.

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  • Sight & Sound: the April 2018 issue

    Sight & Sound: the April 2018 issue

    Wes Anderson on Isle of Dogs, Warwick Thornton on Sweet Country, Lynne Ramsay on You Were Never Really Here, Ruben Östlund on The Square and...

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