Warwick Thornton’s Aussie Western Sweet Country is a lyrical meditation on a significant but subtle turning point in his country’s history: the moment where some white colonizers struggling in the Outback turned against slavery, not necessarily out of moral outrage but because they determined that the enslavement of indigenous black aboriginals was not a viable future for the country. Others, of course, would fight to the death to ensure the old order of things. We’ve seen such stories of awakening through an American lens, but not often onscreen through an Australian one. As presented in Sweet Country, the attitudes and events leading up to the abolition of slavery in Australia play out as frighteningly similar to our own.
Told by an aboriginal director, the film does not revel in brutality, nor does it paint any one person as a hero or villain. Sam Neill plays Fred, a man of religion, who sees all men as equal but still exercises some authority over his indigenous friend Sam (Hamilton Morris). This ensemble drama has no traditional lead, but Sam is as close as we get — it’s his misfortune that sets off a series of fateful events for the other characters. Fred’s white alcoholic ex-soldier neighbor, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), manipulates Sam and Sam’s wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), into going to his property to do some work on the place. Harry’s rough and bossy demeanor sets off Sam’s alarms. Harry shows himself to be a man going mad, re-enacting battles in his cabin, clearly suffering from what we today would call PTSD. Eventually, when Harry’s rage reaches a boiling point, Sam must kill him in self-defense and escape with Lizzie into the Outback. This prompts a posse to hunt Sam down.
That premise might suit a John Wayne movie, but Thornton’s story does not glamorize frontier manliness. In one scene, he shows us two aboriginal men castrating a bull and then taunting a little boy who’s too grossed out to eat the testicles. Life can be cruel for males who do not properly display the right amounts of bravado and strength.
The film is overwhelmingly quiet. In elongated moments of stillness, Thornton inserts quick snippets of flashbacks and flash-forwards from the characters’ lives that act as ciphers and omens, without explanation of whether each has already been or will come to be. The sound design favors either absolute silence or just the smallest hint that a character is moving — a brushing of cloth against cloth. And the cinematography invites us to savor barren expanses, coming quite close to the simple but profound impact of Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 slow Western Meek’s Cutoff, which told the story of traveling pioneers through the point of view of the women.
Here, Thornton often allows us to see the world from the eyes of indigenous men and women. He and co-cinematographer Dylan River hold the camera on their faces as they think carefully about the words they will say to the “white folks” around them. They may get exponentially less dialogue than their white counterparts, but the indigenous actors are granted ample screen time and their own moral quandaries. For instance, Archie (Gibson John) submits to the white folks’ demands to track down Sam, even though he knows Sam only acted in self-defense. Even Sam, who is essentially “good,” chooses to act callously to his wife when he discovers Harry raped her — no one is innocent here. Thornton delicately peels back all the layers of Aussie injustice in this film, but what’s most unnerving is that the story proves to be so universal.