Sweet Country (2017)

Review #1,517

Director:  Warwick Thornton
Cast:  Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown
Plot:  Australian Western set on the Northern Territory frontier in the 1920s, where justice itself is put on trial when an aged Aboriginal farmhand shoots a white man in self defense and goes on the run as posse gathers to hunt him down.

Genre:  Crime / Drama / Western
Awards:  Won Special Jury Prize (Venice)
Runtime:  110 mins
Rating:  M18 for some nudity
International Sales:  Memento Films

“We're all equal here.  We're all equal in the eyes of the Lord.”

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country, his second fiction feature after the celebrated Cannes Camera d'Or-winning Samson and Delilah (2009), is a masterful attempt at the Outback Western, bringing into play the myriad of elements that one would associate with the genre in general, yet there’s enough specificity, and sometimes, incongruence, to make it a standout entry.  It is at once a national Western and a film that doesn’t conform to type.

Slow-burning but never unabsorbing, Sweet Country's pacing is just right—Thornton never holds a shot for too long even if the temptation is there.  The editing has its own visual rhythm, as if the film is a mosaic of quick flashbacks and flash-forwards that punctuate the central narrative.  This style gives us a sense of the intertwining between history and destiny, the two dialectical poles of temporality that Thornton brilliantly essentialises in his work.

Through his indigenous lead character Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), whose tumultuous journey we follow, Thornton confronts deep-seated racism and prejudice in a land where justice and order seem like a fata morgana.  After killing a ‘whitefella’ in an act of self-defence, Sam escapes into the Northern Frontier as the law—in the form of a black-hating sergeant (played by Bryan Brown)—tries to hunt him down.

It is a simple premise, one that usually translates well into an exciting thriller, but Thornton is not interested in a kinetic, white-knuckle chase; instead, he opts for introspection and implosion where the stakes weigh heavily on the psyche of the characters.

Beautifully-composed by Thornton who served as cinematographer himself, Sweet Country is haunting in the expansive images it conjures up.  One astonishing scene sees a man on a horse trotting away into the horizon of a never-ending desert via a series of dissolves from medium shot to extreme wide shot, in what feels like a reverse homage to the famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

In its lyrical beauty, there is also hostility in the form of the rugged terrain that the characters traverse, and the brutality of Man, where a perverse form of dark masculinity thrives.  Racism, misogyny, violence and hate all commingle in this land of lawlessness.  The only hope is compassion, which Thornton taps in abundance in the two Sams—Sam Kelly and Sam Neill’s benevolent character.  But the film asks us: is it enough to change a country?

Verdict:  Beautifully-composed and edited in a mosaic style, Thornton’s second fiction feature is a rugged, masculine Outback Western that deals with race and lawlessness with implosive intent.





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