17 April, 2018

Back to the Outback

A Review of SWEET COUNTRY (2018)

Sweet Country is a long ride of a film and it feels like it. On the surface it appears to be a simple, by the number western, but as it creeps along, it slowly reveals a film about the pain and price of Australia's bloody past-- and indeed the bloody past of most all of western history. It’s not a film that you walk out of the theater feeling unsatisfied by. It’s a full, rich film that is also pointedly merciless and exhausting. It is a film that asks for as much as it gives.

Sweet Country tells a seemingly simple story that would fit perfectly between Shane and High Noon (or Unforgiven and The Proposition) about an Aboriginal farmer (Sam Kelly played by newcomer Hamilton Morris) wrongly accused of murder. A posse is formed and a manhunt ensues. And throughout all of this are the complicated domestic lives of people living at the edge of the dying British Empire.

It’s also a film that rides a line between traditional Westerns, revisionist Westerns, and Australian westerns (of which there are a surprising amount). As well trod as that genre (and sub-genres) is, Sweet Country stands out because it’s a film about the conflict between natives and settlers that is from the perspective of the natives (both in front of the camera and behind the camera). Not only is the story more interested about the Aboriginal people (and those that are stuck between two worlds as “half-castes”), but the camera itself seems to give them all of the best shots. And why wouldn't it be? In this world (ie: history), the best white people on offer are either abject racists, madmen, or well-meaning but complicit in the despoiling of Australia. While I can’t say that Sweet Country has a rich and bold Aboriginal voice, what I can say for certain is that it’s a movie that has a unique voice and that alone makes it worth seeing.

The stand-out among these is Warlpiri actor Hamilton Morris, who plays the runaway that the entire film centers around. Who has a face that belongs to another era—namely the golden age of Westerns. That man has a face and a carriage about him that just belongs on the big screen. And, like some of the greats of the American Western, he isn’t much for speaking. He lets everyone do the acting around him. Morris is an interesting choice to center the film around him as he very clearly isn’t a seasoned actor, he brings a verisimilitude to the picture that you don't often see in movies about native people. Hamilton Morris (what a name!) feels like a fulfillment of promise of "sensitivity" regarding native people that so many other films promise and then completely fuck up.

Sam Neill is also present doing his Sam Neill thing. I’d say more, but it’d be simpler and better for everyone if I just reminded you that Sam Neill is the best. He's great.

One of the bolder choices that Warwick Thornton makes is that Sweet Country is completely without non-diegetic music. From beginning to end, the only music you hear comes from a character. It’s
It’s funny because when I think of Australian and Westerns, I think of one of the best scored films of all time, The Proposition

Sweet Country is a film without distractions. Instead of making the film feel empty or lifeless, the lack of a score preserves the film’s tone. It’s a joyless world and it’s a joyless film. To add music would be to garnish it in some way that wouldn’t be true to the film.

It also leads to the only legitimate laugh in the entire picture. Again: Thank you, Sam Neill.

Another stand out feature of the film is the landscape (which is maybe the only unqualified strength of Hostiles). As full of bugs and snakes and god knows what else, Warwick Thornton (doubling as cinematographer) makes the Australian back country look like a place that you would want to visit-- or at least a place where you could stare longingly at the Abyss in peace.

It makes you pine for a world that somehow entirely gone and yet somehow still here. In that way, Sweet Country stacks up to the best films the genre has to offer. Sweet Country is a nearly joyless, nearly heartless film that fills its almost two-hour running time with a weight that matches the subject matter. It shows the Australian past as the heartless, soulless thing that it is and because of that, it isn’t something that anybody is going to be storming the gates to go and see. That only seems to make it even more vital as a work of art. Thinking on it, that’s probably the point.

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and has never been south of the equator. You can donate to his Patreon . You can buy the book he edited here (and on eBay). You can also follow him on Twitter. Also, if you well and truly give a shit hmu on my Paypal. Want to buy me a coffee? Get at my Ko-Fi.