Director: Warwick Thornton
Runtime: 110 minutes
Based on the true story of an indigenous man named Wilaberta Jack in 1929, Sweet Country is an Australian Western that truly earns both aspects of that distinction. Thornton’s excellent depiction of the outback’s beauty sits uneasily alongside a story of frontier justice in post-colonial Australia (penned by Steven McGregor) that doesn’t shy away from the awful realities that indigenous people were forced to endure. Far from the triumphalism of the classic American Western, Sweet Country’s story of a nation is rife with truths that are difficult to reconcile, approaching Australian history with equal parts empathy and cynicism.
Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) is an indigenous farmhand working on the land of preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill). Fred, ever the good Samaritan, asks Sam to lend a day’s work to a fellow farmer—Harry March (Ewan Leslie), a war veteran with a quick temper and a racist streak. Sam hesitantly complies, and unsurprisingly finds a cruel and abusive host in Harry. Suffering through that day’s horrors puts Sam and his family on Harry’s radar, ultimately entangling them in Harry’s quest to punish a thieving half-indigenous child, Philomac, and the tragic events that follow.
Rather than focusing too much on character archetypes, Sweet Country plays its characters on their merits and circumstance, with a particular emphasis on their relation to the beautiful and humbling landscape. With Warwick Thornton handling the cinematography and direction, the landscape is brought into wonderful clarity; Thornton vividly paints the multiplicity of the Australian outback and the many kinds of beauty and danger found within, oftentimes used as a stark juxtaposition to the events that play out before it.
For me, one of the film’s greatest storytelling strength comes through in its editing. At key moments, soundless vignettes from the past or future are seamlessly intercut over the audio of the present scene. While constant intercutting has frustrated me to no end in other films, the intercuts in Sweet Country are rhythmic and nonintrusive, creating a kind of temporal puzzle to unwind. The viewer is encouraged to piece together these fragments of past and future events to unravel their significance and relevance, resulting in some excellent moments of mystery and revelation—some that didn’t hit me until well after I’d watched the film.
The sound design is another standout element, particularly suited for a film as understated as this. There is barely a score to speak of in Sweet Country, save for Fred Smith’s endearingly awkward and unwelcome rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” during a grueling tracking endeavor. For the most part, the landscape—and its sound design—is left to speak for itself, which is something that I would mind seeing canonised in the conventions of the “Meat Pie Western”—a genre of which Sweet Country will likely, and deservedly, be remembered as a cornerstone.
Hamilton Morris plays Sam with a wary stoicism that belies a history of abuse and sense of wounded pride. The half-indigenous Philomac is deftly played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan, who deliver a cohesive performance as a young man trying to forge a path for his future amidst a confusing dual heritage. Natassia Gorey Furber doesn’t get nearly enough screentime as Sam’s wife, whose suffering is largely relegated to ellipsis and subtext. Still, her character’s most confronting moments seem always kept in play between things left unsaid and Furber’s subtle acting. Acting veterans Sam Neill and Bryan Brown put forward compelling portrayals of both extremes of the white community, providing an excellent foil for one another and emphasising Thornton’s efforts not to over-generalise any particular group.
As a whole, Sweet Country offers an alternative mythology of the Australian frontier—and while the truth of Australia’s founding on the backs of indigenous workers is not new, its delivery in this film is poetic and captivating enough that it might just sink into our skulls a little more vividly.