Racial constraints are life in Warwick Thornton’s low-boiling and powerful drama Sweet Country. It’s 1920, Western Australia. When elderly aboriginal Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) kills a belligerent white man in self-defense, he must flee the crooked arm of the law. With posses rounded up and eager lawmen hot on his trail, Thornton explores the racial tilt of criminality drawing disturbing parallels to modern-day criminal justice.
Sweet Country wastes no time establishing its theme, etching the segregation between aboriginal and invader into the barren Australian landscape, their status as immutable and tangible as physical signposts. But in this troubling era, there is light to match the darkness poisoning Australia’s societal soul.
Fred Smith (Sam Neill) is a good man. He keeps Sam as a friend and a laborer, not as a slave or indentured servant as many of his neighbors do. When the wicked Harry March (Ewen Leslie) comes knocking, looking to borrow “one o’ those black folks” for a job, Fred opines it is not his choice to make and offers the gig to Sam should he choose it. Despite good intentions, Fred cannot grasp the subtleties of this gesture. This is a world of intolerance where the faintest suggestion of a slight leads to death. And worse. Sam knows that to turn down Harry March is to incite his own doom and so goes, wife and niece in tow, into the belly of the beast. Sexual and physical violence are symptoms of racial hierarchy and both are impressed upon Sam’s family. Later, Harry enraged and probably wracked with guilt, comes knocking again, brandishing a rifle, blood boiling. He fires into the house, unprovoked. Kicks down the door. He does not survive the altercation.
Describing Sweet Country as an adventure movie or a crime thriller is disingenuous as the fleeting moments of tracking through the bush, fleeing on foot and high-tempered violence are window dressings to the deeply felt drama that characterizes the soul of the film. This is a movie about injustice and racism, that wears its country’s most uncomfortable legacies of racial injustice on its sleeves. In this graveyard of societal pressures and ill intentions, Thornton’s film finds stores of emotional power, moving with subtle grace, a la the light-footed Sam as he slinks away from the lawmen hot on his heels.
Though deliberately-paced, Thornton’s journey rarely feels sluggish, gathering meaning and empathy for its characters as it chugs towards a heart-sinking conclusion. That being said, the film may prove a touch clunky transitioning between its various acts with characters making decisions that can be hard to comprehend but ultimately come together in meaningful, tragic ways. Sweet Country is a quiet film and a tough watch. One meant to dwell within and to sit on later. Its imagery threatens to carve itself into your cranium just as much as its themes, Thornton expertly displaying the drama, using wide shots that at once highlight the vast expanse of Australia’s region and its crushing desolation. A dark man blotting out a bone-white stretch of barren desert an example of Thornton’s smart use of metaphorical imagery.
Neill is strong as Fred Smith, a progressive thinker naive to the depths of his country’s demons, but it’s Morris who is the revelation. Forcing himself to hold his tongue or stare down at his feet, Morris is almost otherworldly, omniscient as Sam Kelly, as if he knows the fate in store for him. As if he has walked down this path a thousand times before. He’s a tragic character, no doubt, and Morris, in his first ever film appearance, fills him with implacable wisdom and deep sorrow. The final shot brings everything perfectly full circle, suggesting that the devastating cycle can be broken and that not all horrors need be inherited by a new generation.
CONCLUSION: Don’t let its title deceive you, ‘Sweet Country’ has very little sweet about it. Warwick Hamilton’s film is steeped in racial injustice and hard-accepted stereotypes that ostensibly explores the guilt of an Australian aboriginal while really putting the country itself on trial.