As much as I love westerns, one thing they almost all discomfortingly fail on is their representation of indigenous peoples as white men make their journeys through the wilderness. Here to show the Americans how it’s done is Australian director Warwick Thornton, whose outback western Sweet Country is quietly revolutionary in its focus on Aboriginal lives and stories, giving these characters an agency and voice that we too rarely see. It’s a superb genre film in its own right, but with this unique perspective, it becomes all but essential, which is why it’s lucky that it’s so completely gripping and thrilling.
Sweet Country is set in the Northern Australian Territories in the 1920s, a segregated land somewhere between America’s Jim Crow society and out and out slavery. It’s hardly a place suited for white habitation, the ‘whitefellas’ who own the farms being driven mad at varying speeds by the ceaseless beating of the sun. At the most extreme end of this process is ex-soldier and now-drunk Harry March (Ewen Leslie), whose buying up of the neighbouring crop of land ends up throwing stoic farmhand Sam Kelly’s (Hamilton Morris) life into chaos.
Sam works with, not for, good Christian, egalitarian, and genuinely decent man Fred Smith (Sam Neill), but from Harry’s first visit to their farm, you can tell that this peaceful state of affairs will not last. Sam agrees, against his and Fred’s better judgement, to spend two days working on March’s land, a disaster waiting to happen. March is so racist that he’s even trained his dog to be bigoted, and his war PTSD combined with his drinking makes him unpredictable and vicious. In a truly terrifying scene, he rapes Sam’s wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), Thornton hiding the vile act itself, but creating dread through the gradual culminating of small actions by March that we know must be leading to something hideous.
Later, in a rage, March attempts to break into Sam and Lizzie’s house while Fred is away, an idiot’s quest that ends with March shot dead and the Kellys fleeing into the wilderness. From there, the chase is on, and Sweet Country slows its pace considerably. After a nail-biting first act, Thornton is content to engage his audience on a different front, immersing you in the unrelenting heat of the outback. As the minds of the white pursuers, led by the arrogant Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), deteriorate in the desert, we’re subjected to a sensory assault.
Not only is the heat visible, we can feel its scorch and hear its buzz, and Thornton’s cinematography (he acts as DOP as well as director) is transporting, dragging us into this untamed land kicking and screaming. Nature’s stark and dangerous majesty is on full display (a visit to some vast salt flats is like going to another planet), uninterrupted by needless plot convolutions. Most of writers Steven McGregor and David Tranter’s dialogue is simple and driven on the surface, though loaded with subtext and implication once you dig deeper.
Sudden, brutal violence erupts on occasion, gruesome but not gratuitous, and Thornton doesn’t treat life as cheaply as this genre often does. Every death carries weight and lingers in the memories of the characters and the audience, and for all the harshness, the body count is actually rather low. Small snippets of backstory and context are added by brief, silent flashbacks and cutaways, cleverly fitting a ton of extra storytelling in without padding anything out. Every character is fully drawn, and even March is a human rather than a cartoon villain.
Morris, in his first film role, is a commanding presence as Sam. In classic sun-baked western style, we have to learn how to identify characters by their silhouettes, and Sam’s is easily the most immediately iconic of the shadows. Not including the background townspeople, there’s about an even split of indigenous and white roles, a rarity that is thrilling to see, and an achievement to be commended and copied by future ‘western’ films. Of the white cast, Sam Neill is quietly terrific in a talismanic role, but it’s Bryan Brown as the conflicted Fletcher who’s the real standout.
In the climactic trial sequence, the revelations about what exactly led to March’s death knock Fletcher off guard, his assurance that Sam’s actions deserve to be punished through hanging suddenly challenged. His self-righteous air dissolves slowly in front of our eyes in a performance of immense subtlety and gravity. As the trial continues, it’s interrupted by sounds of sawing and hammering as both gallows and a town church are built. Whether through violence or more ‘civilised’ terms, the will of the white invaders to take land and obliterate cultures knows no end, and even with the murders on display, that is Sweet Country’s great tragedy.