Where to begin with Warwick Thornton

As his new film, the Cate Blanchett drama The New Boy, arrives in cinemas, we catch you up with a filmmaker who has redefined Australian cinema in recent years: Indigenous director Warwick Thornton.

The New Boy (2023)Signature Entertainment/Ben King

Why this might not seem so easy

Writing in the Guardian about Warwick Thornton’s 2009 debut feature, expatriate Australian pot-stirrer Germaine Greer suggested: “Some people say they don’t get Warwick Thornton’s film, Samson & Delilah. And some people who say they do get it, don’t.” Although criticised at the time, Greer did identify a significant undercurrent that would carry through all of Thornton’s subsequent work, which manages a consistent balance of the universal and the culturally specific.

A Kaytetye filmmaker, Thornton is the son of Freda Glynn, a pioneer of Aboriginal media in central Australia. Working across feature-length dramas, television, narrative shorts, gallery-based works, and feature and short-form documentaries (alongside a prolific career as a cinematographer), he’s established a singular voice and vision that has helped to redefine Australian cinema – and the so-called Blak Wave of Indigenous filmmaking – over the last two decades.

Any survey of Thornton’s work will reveal a filmmaker with a distinct interest in dismantling settler iconography, and kicking down the dual walls built up by religion and colonisation in Australia. These abiding concerns come neatly together in his latest drama, The New Boy, in which Cate Blanchett plays a rogue Catholic nun who assumes control of a rural home for Aboriginal boys, and welcomes the mysterious titular character (Aswan Reid) into the fold, with miraculous consequences. 

Drawn loosely from Thornton’s own experience of being sent away to Catholic boarding school, and coming face to face with the strange sight of the Christ crucified, this film underlines what may just be Thornton’s own holy trinity, where the personal, the political and the punk collide magnificently.

The best place to start – Sweet Country

Inspired by a true story, Thornton’s masterpiece is the 2018 feature Sweet Country, which follows the plight of Aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) who goes on the run after shooting a white landowner, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), in self-defence. Set amid the monumental landscapes of the MacDonnell Ranges in central Australia, this revisionist western manages to offer an accessible reimagining of the archetypal narrative of frontier justice, without washing over the deep complexities of a settler colonial complex that not only marked its 1920s setting, but which still resonates in contemporary Australia.

Sweet Country (2017)

The film’s devastating final line – “What chance have we got? What chance has this country got?” – delivered by Sam’s friend, the benign preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) – is as much a cry for historical understanding as it is for contemporary reconciliation. In his director’s statement, Thornton explained his desire to “use the accessibility of the western genre for audiences to enter the story … and so experience the issues faced by an occupied people”, a tactic that was “designed to break down the cultural boundaries between us and bring us together”.

What to watch next

A powerful statement of reconciliation, Sweet Country leans heavily into the western genre, but its eschewing of certain tropes – most notably its lack of a soaring musical score – lends the film an eerie quietude. Thornton’s mastery of cinematic silence, however, is no clearer than in his debut feature, Samson & Delilah (2009), which employs a rather more direct form of social realism. With long periods of silence, and astonishing central performances from non-actors in near-mute roles, this film traced the tragic story of two young Aboriginal lovers on the run and caught between worlds. Setting the pattern for his subsequent features, this tough but rewarding watch proved a worthy recipient of the Camera d’Or for best first feature at Cannes.

Samson & Delilah (2009)

Thornton’s television work also has the capacity to shock and mesmerise in equal measure. His masterful handling of key episodes in the second series of Mystery Road (2018 to 2022) helped to expand the world of Aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) first developed in Gamilaroi filmmaker Ivan Sen’s 2010 film of the same name. 

It is the dual high points of Thornton’s flirtations with the small screen, however, that most aptly demonstrate his versatility and creativity. Shot on the remote Dampier Peninsula, the exquisitely meditational The Beach (2020) sees Thornton fronting his own slow-TV lifestyle show that is part-travelogue, part-cooking show, part-chicken whispering curio. Its polar opposite is the raucous, rock’n’roll-infused Aboriginal vampire hunter series Firebite (2021). Although made (in collaboration with Brendan Fletcher) for a US streamer, this eight-episode slice of genre-bending fun sacrifices none of Thornton’s usual barbed cultural critique, as the Blood Hunter Tyson Walker (Rob Collins) and his adoptive daughter Shanika (Shantae Barnes-Cowan) kick a whole load of settler colonial vampire arse across the opal mining catacombs of the South Australian outback.

Where not to start

Although you would be hard-pressed to find anything involving Thornton that isn’t worth your time, his early documentary work for the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association relies upon an understandable cultural specificity. Likewise, Thornton’s contributions to a pair of somewhat sluggish portmanteau films might test the hardiest of viewers. ‘True Gods’ is his visually stunning contribution to Guillermo Arriaga’s spiritually inclined Words with Gods (2014), while ‘Big World’, his entry in the Tim Winton short story adaptation The Turning (2013), lacks the weight and significance of excellent standalone shorts like Green Bush (2005), or the humour of Mimi (2002) or Nana (2007).

In some senses, Greer’s provocation would prove prophetic, as there are moments where Thornton’s work does benefit from a more than passing knowledge of the complexities being addressed. His punk-infused documentary We Don’t Need a Map (2017), for instance, offers a fascinating, multi-faceted reclamation of the visual symbolism of the Southern Cross that might nevertheless confuse non-Australian audiences unfamiliar with the constellation itself, or its long association with political extremism. 

Likewise, his wonderful quasi-documentary project The Darkside (2013), which collected and adapted Indigenous-themed ghost stories from across Australia, might prove stylistically and thematically baffling to some viewers. Similar might also be said of visually arresting, if somewhat esoteric (and rarely seen) gallery installations like Stranded (2011), a 3D self-portrait on a floating light-box crucifix, or the wild colonial boy dismantling of Meth Kelly (2020).

Whether chasing the universal or dealing with the culturally complex, Thornton’s exquisitely shot, beautifully observed films express a consistent faith in humanity and a much-needed demonstration of Indigenous survival.

The New Boy is in cinemas from 15 March 2024.