Director: Warwick Thornton
Writers: Steven McGregor & David Tranter
Composer: Damien Lane
Starring: Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Hamilton Morris
Genre: Western, Adventure, Crime, Drama
Director Warwick Thornton first made waves in Australian cinema (and eventually the world at large) with his landmark, award-winning film, Samson & Delilah. No, it’s not actually about the Biblical figures. Instead, it was a brutally captivating film about Indigenous Australians. Thornton deftly managed to deliver an honest perspective and provided a voice to this marginalized people group. Then the director seemed to seep back into obscurity. Years later, realizing that he hadn’t done a big project in a long time, he decided to once again share Indigenous stories with the world. Sweet Country is the result of his latest efforts.
Violence/Scary Images: Several characters are shot. Blood splatter is seen. A gunshot wound is seen close up with blood pumping out. One dead body is shown lying in a pool of blood. A character is killed with a spear. Someone is bitten by a scorpion. A woman is raped–the crime is conducted in darkness and only the noises are heard. Characters assault each other. Violent threats are frequently made throughout the film. A delinquent boy is held against his will and occasionally hit.
Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped frequently. The s-word, a-word, d*ckhead, and p*ss are also heard. There are a lot of verbal threats involving the intention of physical harm, along with racist name calling towards Indigenous Australians. H*ll is said, and God’s name is used in vain.
Drug/Alcohol References: The film is set during a time when smoking and spitting tobacco was common. Alcohol is drunk, and intoxication is depicted.
Spiritual Content: One character is a Christian preacher. He quotes the Bible, sings “Jesus Loves Me”, and frequently talks about the religion in a positive way.
Sexual Content: A woman is raped (the crime is committed in pitch black). A man expresses his desire to rape a young girl. A couple is seen in bed together, where it is implied they’ve had sex. A man is shown naked, though his genitals are covered. There’s an unwanted pregnancy.
Other Negative Content: Prejudice and racism are large themes that are tackled in this film. The story also deals with the topic of injustice.
Positive Content: The Christian preacher is a much-needed voice of morality in this film, reminding several characters that all men are equal in the eyes of the Lord.
Set in the 1920s amongst a burgeoning, yet still desolate, sun-scorched community in Australia’s Northern Territory, newcomer Harry March–a man with racist views–requires some help setting up his new farm. His distant next-door neighbor is the township’s Christian pastor, Fred Smith (Sam Neill). Viewing all men as equal, and practicing what he preaches, Fred shares his property with Indigenous Australians, including Sam Kelly and his family. When Fred turns down Harry’s request for help due to an ill-timed need to make the arduous journey into town, it leaves Harry no choice but to ask Sam. Wary of the situation, but feeling he must oblige partly since it’s the ‘Christian thing to do’, Sam agrees, though as the audience expects, the result is disastrous.
Sweet Country is a mesmerizing Australian western when it comes to presentation, but is brutal and unforgiving with its message. Like most in the genre, it delivers a simple story–a crime is committed and a long chase ensues–though the movie’s themes are anything but self-explanatory. While the events in the film are rather straightforward, and sometimes even predictable, it is sadly because of the audience’s understanding of the insidious push of racism. This film embodies an ever-growing sense of omniscience–deep down what will unfold, and one has to wonder if that’s more of a critique of the movie, or society at large.
The movie’s title, Sweet Country, is an oxymoron of sorts. On the one hand, the desolate wilderness is not only visually stunning in its ruggedness, it also can offer safe harbor. On the other, it’s brutal and unforgiving in its barrenness. Using gorgeous wide shots in order to heighten the sense of isolation, and only occasionally coming in close with the camera, director Warwick Thornton makes the most of the environment’s dual nature.
Like the countryside, Sam represents both sides, though he is also neither. He may live like a white man, though he isn’t considered to be equal by society. Sam may also keep in touch with his Indigenous cultural roots, though he is also too far removed from that community as well. With strong references to Christianity, it’s difficult to say whether the film is for or against the religion, or if it’s merely reporting an inconvenient truth. Fred may preach for Australia’s need to wholly embrace the teachings of Scripture, and yet it’s this insertion of another culture–this colonization–that has caused Sam’s tricky predicament and lack of belonging. Fred’s words certainly aren’t untrue, though in particular circumstances it can be considered ironic.
All the cast deliver phenomenal performances, including a number of first-timers, though the characters they portray range from irritating to infuriating. Aside from one or two, every character is dual-sided. No one is perfect. As soon as the audience begins to develop a bond with someone, their darker side is revealed, and the same is true vice versa.
The Australian western subgenre lacks the vibrant wholesomeness that the early American films depicted. Subtle in its storytelling, Thornton has produced a movie where the good guys aren’t necessarily the ones in white. Yet the actual events in the plot aren’t as murky, presenting a situation that is black and white when examined by modern eyes. It’s obvious who the innocent party is here. Yet when everything is judged in the courtroom, suddenly the greys make an unwanted appearance. As the film’s tagline states: “justice itself is put on trial.” It’s a contrast to the Old West, where good fights evil in a heroic showdown. While Sweet Country has those elements, it’s lack of desire to resolve its narrative in such a way is what makes it so unsettling, particularly when justice appears more straightforward in the wilderness compared to what is seen within civilization.
While Sweet Country is a wonderfully constructed film, it’s not for everybody. It travels at a crawling pace. Sometimes it works. In one pivotal scene, we watch in a long, single shot, as a man meticulously adjusts things in his cabin. Having guessed the motivations behind his actions, we know where the story is going, and the slow pace at which it unfolds just deepens the dread. In other scenes, the pace does feel too drawn out.
The film aims at producing more of an emotional experience, as opposed to depicting action-packed sequences. This makes it less like 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and The Lone Ranger, and more within the spiritual realm of westerns such as Once Upon a Time in the West, where the movie’s atmosphere is its most notable attribute. Again, this type of western is not for everyone. For those that are looking more for open adventure as opposed to an introspective journey, then Sweet Country will prove to be a boring choice.
However, Thornton does challenge the traditional story-telling approach by making some daring editing decisions. Similar to what’s currently happening in The Walking Dead, the chronological story would suddenly be interrupted with an image that’s disjointed from the timeline. By the end of the film, audiences eventually learn what was a flash forward, back, and what has undertaken new meaning once the surrounding context has been processed.
Honestly, it’s a confusing technique; I’m still not sure what Thornton is trying to say and his reasons for taking this artistic approach. If I were to hazard a guess, then it’s to create a response that’s not unlike what’s seen in the ending of Get Out. While it’s hard to compare the two films as they are from wildly different genres, they both deal with some of the same themes and foster a similar vibe. Jordan Peele toyed with the audience’s own perceptions of racism and upended their expectations at the end. Warwick Thornton does something similar with his use of flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Of course, there’s also the cynical side of me that’s wondering if the director merely played with the film’s chronological order more out of personal experimentation as opposed to intentionally weaving in a profound message. Sometimes we do read too much into films and give their creators too much credit. In this case, I’m willing to give Thornton the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t belittle the audience by constantly holding their hand, and one can only admire his passion in bringing such a story to the big screen.
As such, for those willing to dig a little deeper or are otherwise interested in seeing a narrative concerning Indigenous Australians, which sadly isn’t common, then Sweet Country is certainly worth a look. However, considering that mainstream audiences aren’t used to either westerns or movies that roll at a slower pace, it will prove boring for most, despite the film being a critical and technical marvel.
+ Cinematography + An insightful look at an issue that isn't commonly addressed in film. + Predictability actually benefits the film's themes. + Offers a complex relationship with Christianity.
- Editing choice can come across as pretentious. - Slow pace. - A lot of movie goers will find this film to be boring.
The Bottom Line
A western that subtly plays against the genre’s typical tropes, Sweet Country is a beautifully shot and mesmerizing journey through the Australian outback, though its racially-orientated themes are as brutal and confronting as its environment. Some will find the slow pace purposeful and unsettling, while others will just find it boring.