"SWEET COUNTRY" — 3 stars — Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey-Furber, Bryan Brown, Matt Day, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan; R (violence, bloody images and language throughout); Tower
Warwick Thornton’s “Sweet Country” is a sobering and dark look at racial tensions in rural 1920s Australia.
The story follows an aboriginal worker named Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), who kills a white war veteran in self-defense. The film is set in Australia’s Northern Territory, washing its beautiful and bleak vistas with desaturated shades of dusty brown, and Sam is one of several aboriginal people caught in the borderlands between tribal land and scattered white settlements.
At the beginning of the film, a disturbed war veteran named Harry March (Ewen Leslie) recruits Sam and his family to do some work at his home. As their work draws to a close, Harry rapes Sam’s wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), then kicks Sam and his family off his land. Then, when a drunken and enraged Harry tracks another aboriginal worker — a young boy named Philomac (a joint performance by Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) — to Sam’s home, Sam kills Harry in self-defense.
Fully aware of both his innocence and the fact that innocence won’t protect him, Sam and Lizzie set off into the Outback. The local sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) gives a chase with a makeshift posse that includes Philomac’s boss and a preacher named Fred Smith (Sam Neill), but Sam proves too elusive until unexpected circumstances eventually bring him back to face his mistaken accusers.
“Sweet Country’s” plot brings together an assortment of contrasting people and philosophies. Smith is the devout Christian minister who sees all people as equal and aspires to start a church in the remote area. Fletcher is the bigoted lawman who assumes Sam is guilty until proven innocent and pursues him out into the desert — and across an especially stunning salt flat — like an Australian Captain Ahab.
Sam and Lizzie are the victims in the crossfire, humble but toughened practicing Christians caught in the transition between cultures. But as tragic as their story is, the most compelling character may be young Philomac, who, torn by the influences of the other aboriginal workers and the angered white settlers around him, increasingly seems to take the side of hatred.
“Sweet Country’s” story moves at a slow and deliberate pace, and its soundtrack is mostly devoid of anything but natural sound. It is packed with gorgeous vistas such as the aforementioned salt flat that mirror the empty hopelessness and loneliness of the film’s characters.
At various points in the film, Thornton inserts blink-and-you-miss-them cutaways that flash forward and backward in the film for an instant, filling in background and foreshadowing the often violent events to come. The violence in “Sweet Country” isn’t persistent or especially graphic, but it hits hard. The film draws its rating primarily from the R-rated language of the settlers, since thankfully, the rape scene is very brief.
Altogether, Thornton’s film is a moody and dark meditation — a grim portrait of an Old West that will be both familiar and foreign to American audiences. "Sweet Country" is rated R for violence, bloody images and language throughout; running time: 113 minutes.