There’s a weight to the silence that engulfs Sweet Country; a heaviness that permeates every gorgeous tracking shot across the barren Outback that serves as its setting.
Warwick Thornton’s striking Western (opening April 6) employs no musical score for its bleak tale of violence, vengeance and survival, only the sound of the wind whooshing through trees and brush, and the gentle hum of insects going about their age-old business, ignorant of the larger dramas unfolding around them. That stillness conveys the vast, elemental desolation of this remote corner of the world, and also, the omnipresent absence of anything approaching justice. It’s a void—in every harsh, cruel sense of the term.
Ironic, then, that Thornton’s film is called Sweet Country, since the land presented here—Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, circa 1929—is mostly sweet with the bone-deep sickness of racism. The austere proceedings commence with the sight of a pot of water boiling on a campfire as a skirmish between English-speaking and Aboriginal males is heard in the distance. Thornton then cuts to the image of an older Aboriginal man named Sam Kelly (the charismatically stoic Hamilton Morris) being nudged into nodding “yes” to the question of whether he understands a query. Neither of these two oblique snapshots will make complete contextual sense until some time later, yet they establish the prevailing mood of simmering hostility and persecution that will guide the material, which shortly thereafter shifts its focus to a trio of remote Australian ranches.
At Black Hill Station, preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill, magnetic in a supporting role) is visited by the area’s new resident, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a former soldier who asks about Smith’s “black stock”—to which Smith responds that “We’re equal here. All equal in the eyes of the Lord.” March cares little about such noble notions, and asks to borrow Smith’s “black fellas”—namely, Sam, his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), and his young niece. Smith obliges, and the three Aboriginal workers accompany March back to his North Creek Station, where they’re forced to set up temporary residence in the open air. Shortly thereafter, while Sam is rounding up cattle, March sexually assaults Lizzie, and then throws all of them off his property.
Without halting its forward momentum, Thornton intermittently segues to quick, wordless moments involving these characters, be it of Smith gazing upwards at night to wash his face in the falling rain, or of a shirtless, feverish March kneeling and clutching his rifle beside a fireplace. As eventually becomes clear, some of these interludes are flashbacks that provide background information about the action at hand, and others are flash-forward visions about the terrible things to come. In both cases, though, their immediate impact is to give one a potent feel for these individuals—including Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), who runs his ranch with the assistance of two Aboriginals, elderly Archie (Gibson John) and adolescent Philomac (Tremayne Doolan/Trevon Doolan), both of whom he abuses verbally and, as during a belt-whipping incident, physically.
Sweet Country sets its scene with a placid patience that portends impending catastrophe. That misfortune arrives when Kennedy lends Archie and Philomac to March, and the “white fella” immediately chains Philomac to a rock for supposedly trying to steal his watch. Like his pooch, which barks ferociously at any approaching Aboriginals, March is a mad dog, and when Philomac subsequently escapes, March goes angrily looking for the kid at Smith’s abode, which is presently being cared for by Sam. A furious confrontation erupts, and faced with his own impending demise, Sam acts in self-defense and shoots March dead. Knowing what becomes of Aboriginals who kill white men, Sam and Lizzie take off into the Outback—while Philomac, hiding in an outhouse, emerges to relieve the dead man of the watch he’d originally been accused of pilfering.
A manhunt ensues, spearheaded by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), a stern official with a desire to avenge the death of a fellow military man. Accompanied by Smith, Kennedy and another soldier whose fate is foreshadowed in one of those aforementioned interludes, they embark on their mission with confidence. Sweet Country’s depiction of the Outback as an imposing stretch of unforgiving emptiness, however, suggests that their self-assurance is misplaced. And when they unwittingly venture into Aboriginal territory—all the while failing to get close to capturing Sam, who remains two steps ahead of his pursuers—they discover they’re in far, far over their heads.
“You’re not right, Fletcher. You’re not right in the head,” Neill’s Smith tells the sergeant during their expedition. It’s a condemnation that could apply to many in this untamed place, as Thornton’s film makes plain that few Caucasians here have sound minds and hearts. Confidently written by Steven McGregor and David Tranter, the story paints an overarching portrait of a wild land raped by its white interlopers, and moreover, it exposes the consequences of that villainy—the displacement and silencing of people, and the destruction of home, history, love, family and, as one Aboriginal elder tells Philomac, connection to ancient cultural lore.
Australia’s intrinsic ruggedness is ever-present in Sweet Country, but it’s rarely romanticized by Thornton or his characters, whose initially conventional dynamics soon twist into knots. Even greater than Thornton’s evocation of this sun-scorched region—all scraggly plains, endless salt flats, and funereal sheets billowing in the breeze—is his nuanced address of the way intolerance breeds widespread literal and figurative corruption, such that no court justice can halt the centuries-old tide of pain, misery and hate.
Led by commandingly rough and complex performances by Neill, Brown and Morris—the latter imparting profound truths through the slightest of gestures and expressions—it’s a lament for endlessly repeating cycles of suffering of the body, psyche and soul. “What chance has this country got?” a character murmurs in the final scene as he wanders off toward the distant horizon. That mournful question continues to echo long after Johnny Cash has finished singing “Peace in the Valley” over the closing credits.