Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’
It’s possible that of all the classic Hollywood genres, it is the western in which Australian filmmakers have done their best work. In the process of taking on the genre as their own, they have increasingly reconfigured it to examine and challenge questions of nationhood, identity, history and race.
In part, our cinema has mirrored the development of the American western film, beginning with largely celebratory mythmaking about the “frontier” and settler domination of the bush, from 1907’s Robbery Under Arms to the long cycle of films directed and produced by Ken G. Hall in the years before World War II. This now controversially mythic and triumphant aspect of the Australian western persisted, in 1980s films such as The Man from Snowy River and the Crocodile Dundee series, and more recently in Kriv Stenders’ Red Dog. But the most potent of Australian western films are those that question the mythologies of settler fortitude and heroism, and of the territorial conquest and development of “virgin” and unclaimed land.
Violence, and in particular the violence against the nation’s First Peoples, remains the explosive fuel that ignites this often incendiary exploration of our national mythologies. To my mind, Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries and Bedevil, and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition remain the outstanding Australian works to have revisited and deconstructed the tropes of the genre. But even films such as Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), or Steve Jodrell’s Shame (1988), although not dealing with racism and its legacy directly, expose the belligerence and misanthropy of settler Australian masculinity that is central to the expression of that violence.
I think it’s unfortunate that, apart from some very rare exceptions, American filmmakers have largely abandoned the western genre and alongside that abandonment there has been a continuing silence about First Nation experience and culture. The fault line that is black and white relations in that nation, and the continuing arguments and resentments that trouble the understanding of the legacy of slavery and of the Civil War, tend to dominate both the political and artistic responses to America’s history. It’s telling that in the recent work of one of the few American directors to revisit the western, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino puts African Americans and not First Nations at the centre of the narratives. It’s precisely in this space that I think Australian filmmakers have stepped in to continue probing, unsettling and exposing the inexorable link between colonial settlement, violence and Indigenous dispossession.
And it’s in this context that I think Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country is the most exciting film playing on our cinema screens at the moment. I don’t think it is an entirely successful film, but because it is a film that takes on our past, it can’t help but resonate with Australian audiences in a way that is both vital and troubling.
Set in the MacDonnell Ranges in the 1920s, the film begins with a close-up of a billy boiling. We hear the sounds of a violent argument, one we quickly come to understand is occurring between a settler and an Aboriginal man. This deliberate unsettling of our point of view, where we are never certain of exactly what we are hearing and what we are seeing, will be key to making sense of Sweet Country. Thornton deploys both flashbacks and flashforwards throughout the film, in part to signal the inevitable tragedy of what we are watching, but also to undermine our faith in what we are witnessing.
The story is simple and brutal. An Aboriginal farmer, Sam Kelly, played by Hamilton Morris, kills a white farmer, Harry March, played by Ewen Leslie. As an audience, we know that Sam has killed in self-defence but we fear that there is no possibility Sam will receive a fair trial. We understand why Sam flees into the outback, taking with him his wife, Lizzie, played by Natassia Gorey-Furber. Pursued by both the law and a vigilante mob, Sam knows land and country in a way the whitefellas do not. But circumstances he cannot control, and which further bind the narrative to a tragic and disturbing fatalism, see his and Lizzie’s return to town to face settler justice.
The trial is the climax of the film and it echoes the mythology of ancient Greek tragedy, where the judgement of the gods is final and seemingly inevitable. But the echoes are not only those of ancient theatre. As Thornton films the trial scenes, which occur in the open street, with the vigilante white mob standing on the porch of the pub, a constant sinister and shadowy background presence, I was reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s filming of the trial scenes in Rashomon, another film that questions the veracity of witnessing and truth telling. I was reminded also of Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2006 film Bamako, in which we, too, are witness to a trial happening in the open air, where neo-imperialist versions of truth and justice are contrasted with the storytelling and daily experiences of Mali’s colonised subjects. Bamako featured a film within a film, a lurid exploitation western, further emphasising how much contemporary material forms of exploitation are linked to a long legacy of racist and colonial representation.
I don’t think these echoes and suggestive resonances are accidental in Sweet Country. Thornton’s work here is sophisticated and disciplined; he knows that, even though his story is set in the 1920s, as a contemporary audience we are being placed on trial as much as we are being asked to bear witness. What we are to adjudge are two forms of tradition, two experiences of law and ultimately two very different understandings of what country itself might mean.
Myth was integral to Thornton’s previous feature film as a director, Samson and Delilah. That was obvious from the title but also in the Christian symbolism that was both central and subverted in that film’s narrative. I think Thornton’s attraction to the mythic and the poetic is fundamental to his work as director and cinematographer. I mean by this that his characters are often archetypes drawn from Christianity and Aboriginal lore, and that this occurs, most pertinently, in how he frames and understands nature and landscape. The outback sequences are ravishing in this film. The earth, the bush and the desert, the water and sky, are a constant and palpable presence, and the suggestion is clear that Sam and Lizzie are never as free as when they are in the country that is unknown to the settlers. There is one white man, the preacher Fred Smith, played by Sam Neill, who is a friend to Sam. But even with Fred, Sam and Lizzie are largely silent, always standing back. Unshackled from the settler’s world, they seem as heroic as the landscape they move among. It is why their return out of the outback to the township to face trial is a kick in the guts for us. We profoundly feel the loss of their freedom.
Both audience and reviewers largely ignored the religious and mythic elements of Samson and Delilah. The scenes set in Alice Springs had such a realistic and visceral urgency to them that they dominated our memory of that film. In my case at least, they made me indulgent of the messiness of the film’s final act, where I wasn’t confident Thornton had a coherent grasp of what exactly his characters were meant to be symbolising. Were they meant to be an Adam and Eve? Or an Abraham and Sarah? It seemed to me that the confusion arose from Thornton’s own conflicted experiences and responses to Christianity, a conflict also at work in Sweet Country. But we can’t ignore or set aside myth in this new movie, for it is central to how the film is structured, how it builds on the tropes of the western genre and seeks to go beyond them. The conception is tragic – in how it is written, how it is dependent on the ominous use of flashforward – but ultimately the film lacks tragic potency.
It might just be that although Thornton is an exceptionally lyrical filmmaker, he doesn’t have the gift for representing violence on screen. The one chilling, violent moment in Sweet Country is a rape, and it happens in complete darkness. The other moments of violence in the film are clumsily staged and unconvincing. A comparison here with Hillcoat’s The Proposition seems apposite: Hillcoat has a real flair for depicting violence, for making it shocking, for terrifying us. In the end, it is why I think The Proposition a more successful western of our tainted and ignoble histories. Apart from the rape, the violence in Sweet Country seems muted, it doesn’t distress us, and that is a real burden for a film that takes as its subject our brutal past.
There is another problem central to the film, which undercuts any tragic force. Morris and Gorey-Furber are not professional actors. There is a reticence to their performances that was at first disconcerting but very quickly had me enthralled. I think this is one of Thornton’s great gifts as a director: his ability to gain the trust of non-actors. Morris and Gorey-Furber are wonderful in this film, which was also the case with the non-professional actors in Samson and Delilah. But their acting is in stark contrast to that of the trained non-Aboriginal actors and the result is that the professional actors seem to be overplaying and histrionic. Terrific actors, such as Thomas M. Wright and Ewen Leslie, are not helped by the film’s anachronistic and woebegone dialogue. They aren’t playing much more than racist stereotypes, although Wright managed to find some moments of redemption and eventually won me over. Fortunately, with Sam’s escape into the outback, Morris shakes off the tentativeness and passivity of his earlier scenes and the film begins to have urgency and momentum. His is a grand and impressive performance and by the end the film, rightly, belongs to him.
The filmmaker I kept thinking of while watching the film was the Pasolini of The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Oedipus Rex, two other mythic films that utilise a largely non-professional cast. It is tantalising to think of what Sweet Country would have been like if it was completely cast with non-actors. Matt Day, Anni Finsterer and Bryan Brown are expert and fine in their roles, and I think Sam Neill exceptional, the one actor whose playing doesn’t jar against that of the non-professional performers; but every scene dominated by the white actors collapses the mythic frame and they seem like caricatures.
The loveliest moments in Sweet Country involve the character of Philomac, a young Aboriginal boy played by twins Tremayne and Trevor Doolan. It is astonishing to think that two separate actors played the role, so winning and consistent is Philomac as a character. In one sense, it is Philomac’s actions that instigate the calamities that befall Sam Kelly. But Thornton’s tender and thoughtful direction of the twins grants the character real grace and also the possibility of hope. The Doolans are also charmingly comic in the role. This, it might be argued, undermines the tragedy so central to this story and to our history, but I trust Thornton’s instincts with Philomac. The hope doesn’t seem forced or sentimental: his is a true witness.
CULTURE Midsumma Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, until February 4
VISUAL ART ARTEXPRESS 2018
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until April 25
CINEMA Agnès Varda: Life is Art
ACMI, Melbourne, until February 10
VISUAL ART We Are Here
City Arts Space, Perth, until March 1
THEATRE Mary Poppins The Broadway Musical
Theatre Royal, Hobart, until February 10
MUSIC Zoo Twilights
Melbourne Zoo, until March 10
MUSIC Hobart Ah Um
Cinema One, Hobart, February 3-4
MULTIMEDIA Romancing the Skull
Art Gallery of Ballarat, Victoria, until January 28
LITERATURE Lifeline Bookfest
Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, until January 28
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Blessed western". Subscribe here.