A smart genre thriller, which is as visually enjoyable as it is thematically engaging, Sweet Country is top notch viewing that commands attention. Kaytej (indigenous Australian) filmmaker Warwick Thornton returns to the big screen on an altogether grander scale than before with this subversive new ‘Australian Western’. Loosely based on stories from Alyawarra writer David Tranter’s grandfather, the filmmakers create a suspenseful drama about an aboriginal man on the run after being forced to kill a white man who attacks him and his wife without provocation. Sam Neill and Bryan Brown don their best grizzled ‘frontier faces’ to represent the encroaching and imperfect ‘whitefella’ law and religion in pursuit of Sam Kelly (aboriginal actor Hamilton Morris—it’s hard to believe this is only his second acting gig!) as he takes his wife and goes on the run in the far Northern outback, amidst harsh country and unfriendly tribes.
Thornton is probably best known for his internationally acclaimed 2009 debut feature Samson & Delilah, which won the Caméra d’Or at the 2009 Cannes film festival. Where that tragic romance was a raw, minimalist affair, Sweet Country proves that Thornton can make a polished large scale feature. Playing with a larger budget the film boasts a few recognisable names and some stunning cinematography, both in terms of striking landscapes and in terms of camera movement and creative use of frame. As accustomed as I am to seeing Australian landscapes there are some settings in Sweet Country that had me slightly awestruck and Thornton and co. make damn fine use of them.
Though a truly Australian tale, Sweet Country is made more broadly appealing through deft application of genre. What begins seeming like a retread of 2005 Nick Cave and John Hillcoat collaboration The Proposition quickly proves to be its own distinct, and very rewarding, beast. Thornton and co. complicate their recognizable western ‘manhunt’ film with alternative cultural understandings of action and environment, as well as an array of unexpected narrative turns. Sweet Country doesn’t shy away from confronting racial issues but avoids dry didacticism by weaving these themes seamlessly into its story. For example: a conflict that plays out between two slaves—pointedly referred to as ‘blackstock’ by some white landowners—an older man and a young boy whose relative positions within a household is changing. The old man seeks to both cling to his place of (slight) privilege whilst also disillusioning the boy to the reality of any power either of them may feel they have, reminding him that this farm station is not their home. The authentic feeling historical setting is given present thematic resonance as the filmmakers explore the uneasy relationship between the indigenous populace and the European settlers, as well as the evident erosion of identity occurring due to colonisation.
And did I mention that the film involves an excellently awkward acapella song performance by Sam Neill? Because it does. That would be reason enough for me to see this film but thankfully Sweet Country more than stands on both its storytelling and performance merit.
Rating: R16 Violence, Sexual Violence, Offensive Language & content that may disturb.