Sweet Country manages to be both timeless and perfectly of the moment. There are clear influences from such Western warhorses as The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But there’s also a gut-wrenching look into the terror and rage a colonial group experiences when the oppressed race is not sufficiently deferential.
In this case, the setting is the Australian outback circa 1920. Director Warwick Thornton, who does double-duty as cinematographer alongside Dylan River, makes full use of the brush land, the red-brown dirt, and the blistering salt flats. The European settlers seem brutalized and exhausted by the environment, while the Aboriginal natives do not.
Among the latter is Sam Kelly (Hamilton Norris), his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), and their niece. Sam works on an isolated ranch alongside Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a principled Christian who avoids alcohol and believes in equality between the races. When Harry March (Ewen Leslie), another rancher from a nearby outpost, stops by to inquire about Smith’s “black stock,” the preacher gently but firmly corrects him.
Sam and his family volunteer for a few days of work at March’s homestead. But the rancher treats Sam like a stupid child, and leers over the young niece. In a harrowing scene, March corners Lizzie in the house, then almost robotically closes all the doors and windows before raping her in the dark. Sam is unaware, and Gorey-Furber compellingly plays Lizzie’s anguished silenced. March shoos them back home the next day, but eventually Sam puts two and two together.
A little bit later, March borrows another pair of Aboriginal farmhands, the grizzled Archie (Gibson John) and the young Philomac (Tremayne Doolan and Trevon Doolan). Their overseer is Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), who has none of Smith’s moral character, but whose racism is also more disciplined and exacting than March’s. Archie comes off as tolerant at first, but reveals hidden depths and cultural pride in the secret advice he gives to the defiant and hotheaded Philomac.
Indeed, Thornton and his fellow filmmakers do not treat any of their characters as one-note. Sam is not immune to reactionary gender politics, and at one point resents his wife for the assault. Meanwhile, Lizzie accuses him of failing to protect her. As for March, he’s a tortured veteran. A series of quick, almost halucinatory silent cuts show clear signs of the man’s extreme PTSD. It’s a technique used throughout the film for multiple characters and situations, sometimes employing flash-forwards or flash-backs, to add extra emotional resonance.
In a drunken rage, March descends on Sam and Fred’s home, shooting out the windows and kicking in the door. Sam kills him in an act of self defense.
It’s here that Sweet Country really digs into its Western roots: Knowing there will be no justice for an Aboriginal man who kills a “whitefella,” Sam and Lizzie flee into the outback, and the nearby town forms a posse to pursue them. It includes Kennedy and Smith, who joins to ensure Sam comes back alive. There’s also Campbell (Lachlan J. Modrzynski), a fresh-faced constable, and Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who leads the expedition. For the third act, writers Steven McGregor and David Tranter take yet another left turn through the genre’s canon, and raise the hope that civilization’s fragile enlightenment values might actually hold their own.
Harkening back to classic Western characters, particular those played by Henry Fonda, Norris presents Sam is a modestly stoic man, whose silences bury powerful emotion. In this case, it’s not simply a character quirk, but a crucial survival mechanism. He also proves capable quarry, capturing a scorpion at one point and sneaking into his pursuers’ camp to hide it in a boot.
As for Brown’s Fletcher, he’s another veteran who appears driven by bitterness and bloodlust at first. But he also harbors a soft spot for Nell (Anni Finsterer), a bartender in town. Eventually Sam’s capacity for decency sparks something in the Sergeant as well.
Ultimately, Sweet Country doesn’t break the mold, but it has no aspirations for that. It’s a solid bit of genre execution that, rather like Get Out, reorients itself around the perspectives and experiences of people usually shoved to society’s silent margins. Thornton relies on long takes and spare editing to create a dream-like world that is both gorgeous and unremittingly harsh. The pacing is modest but steady, creating a methodical slow-burn film that builds to quietly powerful effect.
The darker impulses of racism and colonialism are not so easily vanquished. “What will become of this country?” one character laments late in the game. It’s rather on the nose, but by that point Sweet Country has earned the indulgence.