The Australian landscape is perfectly suited for the Western genre, with wide-open plains that suggest both exquisite beauty and dangerous inhospitality. Despite a string of bushranger films in the early years of Australian cinema, notably including The True History of the Kelly Gang (scenes of which are on display in Sweet Country), it’s less common to see Australian Westerns lately. Fortunately there have been two recent examples of films that utilises the outback to tell stories of crime, the police, and outlaws through the perspective of Indigenous Australians, demonstrating the rise of new voices to one of our oldest genres – first 2016’s excellent Goldstone (Ivan Sen) and now the poetic and artful Sweet Country, from Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thornton.
On paper the story of Sweet Country is remarkably simple, feeling frustratingly slow at times but nicely split into a clear three-act structure. We’re first introduced to Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an Aboriginal man working on a farm in the 1920s under the care of preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill). When he meets veteran Harry March (Ewen Lesie), Sam is immediately wary of the man due to his alcoholism, unstable mental state, and clear racial prejudice. When March attacks Smith’s house in search of an escaped Aboriginal boy who had been working on his land, Sam is forced to shoot and kill him in an act of self-defence. The second act follows him as he attempts to escape persecution by fleeing into the wilderness, pursued by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), and the third act details his murder trial. Yet the simplicity of the story enables Thornton to put his audience into each moment by emphasising all the smaller, natural details of the world he presents.
Sweet Country is an extraordinarily sensorial experience, particularly through the soundscape Thornton and his team have constructed. With the exception of a single Johnny Cash song over the end credits there is no music throughout the picture, instead a soundtrack of harsh winds and the calls of nature permeate through every scene. It places the viewer firmly within each environment, with the camera emphasising the vastness of the outback. Acting as cinematographer as well as director, Thornton has created the best looking Australian film in years. He uses the natural beauty of his setting to contrast the rustic and dirty homes of the European settlers, demonstrating how they fail to tame and coexist with the land they’ve taken over. Sweet Country never fails to remind the audience how the white farmers are taking both the homes and culture of the Aboriginal people, and Thornton does it in a way that feels more like stating a fact than preaching a message. The indigenous characters seem sadly resigned to their situations, even as they struggle to understand the new rules that are being forced upon them. Morris’s performance as Sam demonstrates a weariness and ingrained understanding of the injustices facing him and his people, with his facial expression rarely changing from a look of profound sadness. For even if sympathetic characters like Fred Smith try to treat Sam as an equal, he is never able to forget the power imbalance between them.
By utilising classic elements of the Western genre and a simple story of a man fleeing persecution, Thornton is able to delve deeper into a powerful exploration of Australia’s darker past. At various points throughout Sweet Country there are flash-forwards to later moments in the film, ambiguous at first glance only to be given greater meaning later. I found that this works to remind viewers that these events, set in the 1920s, have already happened, and to suggest the importance of remembering our history even if we can’t change it.
4 and a half stars.