REVIEW: Samson & Delilah [2009]

“Your eyes are making me laugh”

I’d say that the tagline of ‘True Love’ is a tad misleading. Granted, the young romance at hand is what got me invested in the tale, but the absolute squalor in which they live—not to mention the toxic fume huffing, tragedy upon tragedy, and vagrant lifestyle—is quite the rough experience. I am not a fan of the vagabond-centric film genre, as they generally seem to be exploitative and tragic for shock value alone, yet something about Samson & Delilah stuck out and drew me into the story. It could be the beautifully dry expanse of Australia’s landscape, shot by writer/director Warwick Thornton himself, or possibly the brilliant use of music, a fresh juxtaposition with country music blaring out a young aborigine’s radio. Language is very sparse while emotions are strong and ever apparent. Both Samson and Delilah are alone in the world, doing their best to survive with the little they are given. My, oh my, are times tough though.

Their love is a slow-burning one to say the least. Delilah lives with her Nana and helps paint the native canvases that an Australian shop owner takes and sells in the city to tourists and whatever art collectors are out there. Samson resides in a shack with his brother, awakening to the sounds of friends playing drums and guitar outside his open window. Both children sleep amongst the elements in a thrown together town lacking many creature comforts. Showers are few if ever, cars are used as shelter and radios, the clinic is a worn down trailer, and fires burn constantly for light and warmth. Living across the way from each other, the kids pass often, Delilah doing her best to pretend he isn’t there and Samson trying his hardest to get her attention. They are lively in the early moments, full of spunk and life, butting heads as he moves to her compound and she attempts to throw him out; it doesn’t help things that Nana insists on calling him her granddaughter’s husband. Soon, however, the first tragedy occurs, showing us Westerners the abuse inflicted in the aboriginal culture. Beating with sticks seems to be par for the course whether in response to annoyances, violence, or letting those close by pass away of old age.

Samson takes it upon himself to excise his love and drive off into the distance; as far as they can before the gas runs out. And it is when it does that we finally see what makes the boy so strange in his demeanor and actions. What we assume has been some sort of drug contained in a tin that he awakens each morning to shove his face inside of is replaced by a two-liter soda bottle full of siphoned gasoline taken from parked cars. It appears Samson is getting fuel for their ride when in fact he is getting himself that extra drive to continue on through the pain of just plain living. Constantly escaping to the intoxication more and more, he doesn’t see how much Delilah begins to rely on him, falling in love and now showing it. Instead, his brain slowly devolves as the gas bottle never leaves his hand, only being removed by her at night to be replaced by her wanting hand. This slow division between them, a distance growing each day, soon made me think how relevant the title would end up being. Would someone arrive with a proposition to kill her lover for financial gain as in the Biblical tale, or would she stand by him no matter what hardships were to come? It doesn’t take too long to find out because the tragedies just get larger and more jarring in quick succession.

Thornton has quite the visual eye and I hope to see more of him in the future. Being compared to Bresson for his cinematic minimalism, Samson & Delilah is a prime example of cinematic realism stripped down to only what is absolutely necessary. Definitely an exercise in ‘less is more’, this economy of words and action shows so much. Credit both Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson for their stunning portraits of underprivileged nomads; they are these characters, dirty, beaten, and mute, swatting at flies and doing whatever they can to escape the reality of how low they are. Only when Scott Thornton’s homeless Gonzo befriends them—asking for conversation in return for food—do we finally realize Samson can’t speak. Whether it is from lack of education or the degradation of his mind from the fumes or a combination of both doesn’t matter. All we need to understand is how his ability to function gets worse and worse every day. And it doesn’t get shown in more breathtaking fashion than when Delilah is kidnapped from right behind him as he walks, nose still stuck in the bottle. He is so out of it that he hears nothing until the wheels screech away. It is one of many detailed shot compositions that are unforgettable; Samson in the foreground to the left side of the screen as three boys exit the car and drag her inside, all in slomotion, seamlessly orchestrated to perfection. It’s almost hard to believe that this isn’t even the worst thing to happen while he is under the influence.

The outlook is pretty bleak throughout, so I was surprised when an angelic moment of clarity wasn’t actually the death of one seeing the other in heaven. No, these two kids always seem to find a way to save the other when all appears lost. It culminates in what may be a bit too hopeful of an ending, especially after the absolute bottom hit by both, but it all still stays true to the story’s progression. You can see the struggle these second-class citizens have to overcome in Central Australia, doing their best to survive let alone succeed. The laughter is both crazed—Samson—and infectious—Mitjili Napanangka Gibson’s Nana—a dual role that really epitomizes the entire film. It is an insane world and while these two have found a love to endure, the troubles they face aren’t just a test of fortitude, but also one more hurdle to overcome. The truth is, what occurs is one giant barricade I don’t think I’d have the courage to tackle, let alone succeed in defeating, so watching them risk it all is quite the kick in the pants. If you ever think you have it hard living in suburban America, pop on this film and prepare for a very sobering experience.

Samson & Delilah 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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