Malickian Western embodies pure cinema – Sweet Country (Film Review)

A racially-charged pursuit across the sweltering Northern Territory of 1920s Australia, Sweet Country is a sublime achievement in principled storytelling. Though ostensibly a straightforward tackling of racial justice in the vein of To Kill a Mockingbird, director Warwick Thornton instead favours a cinematic language to tell this tale – and in doing so infuses this Western with a distinctly Malickian sensibility.

Thornton repeatedly interrupts his scenes with brief shots elsewhere – cutaways to moments passed, or to those that are to come. The reloading of a pistol, the hanging of a noose… but it is the image of a young girl with blood splattered across her face that really explores this technique to its most potent effect. Whose blood is this? What happened? Is this a dream we are seeing, or a flashback – or a moment of horror yet to come? It is these brief thoughts that the film relishes in toying with – and they are what transform an otherwise routine plot into an embroiling work of art.

Its first act is an effective piece of world-building – capturing the visual beauty of the Outback plains, whilst simultaneously introducing us to the merciless creatures that inhabit it. Living conspicuously among this scourge lies Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a righteous land-owner and one of the few men in town who views the indigenous Arrernte people as his equals. When his Aboriginal companion Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) kills a white man in self-defence, pandemonium ensues – and Sam is forced on the run, immediately aware of the verdict that a prejudiced jury would surely reach.

The killing in question concerns Harry March (Ewen Leslie), an alcoholic war veteran whose bigotry stands out even in a society as repellent as this one. Leslie portrays March with a tremendous villainy, and it’s a testament to his performance that the presence of March continues to be felt long after his grizzly death. Yet March’s lasting impact is also conveyed through the laconic interactions between Sam and his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), along their getaway. Both Morris and Gorey-Furber, incredibly, are non-professional actors – yet they bear the bulk of the film’s emotional weight with a staggering potency.

Westerns are renowned for their striking framing, and Sweet Country is no exception to the custom. Shot by Thornton himself, the film makes extensive use of all the various doorways and windows – dividing the image into evocative segments in the same way as Messrs Ford and Leone in the 1950s and 60s. The broiling expanses of the Outback has been rendered to such an extent that every drip of sweat and cricket chirp feels tangible – while Thornton’s penchant for slow, circling arc shots makes the viewer feel as scrutinising and invasive as the search party themselves.

While Sam is certainly the chief focus of Sweet Country, the arc of Philomac (superbly played by both Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) is also worth highlighting. As the indigenous, bastard son of colonialist Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), Philomac finds himself caught between two conflicting ways of life. His strive for some measure of personhood is beautifully realised in the Doolans’ performance – transforming something as subtle as wearing a pair of boots in bed into a tender symbol of newly-attained liberty.

Exquisitely crafted from start to finish, Sweet Country is a bold film with pressing issues at its core. That it could easily have conveyed these ideas in a much more straightforward manner says everything you need to know about the abilities of Thornton – and what he has accomplished here.

Dir: Warwick Thornton

Scr: David Tranter, Steven McGregor

Cast: Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Thomas M. Wright, Natassia Gorey Furber

Prd: Greer Simpkin, David Jowsey

DOP: Warwick Thornton

Music: N/A

Country: Australia

Year: 2017

Runtime: 110 mins

Sweet Country is in UK cinemas now.