What chance have we got?
Director Warwick Thornton immediately connected to childhood friend and co-writer David Tranter‘s (with Steven McGregor) script because it provided an authentic context for the historical treatment of their indigenous Central Australian tribes. Based on stories passed down by Tranter’s grandfather as well as Wilaberta Jack’s true life 1920s self-defense killing case, Sweet Country presents a complex look back at a time not quite so long ago filled with men who aren’t quite so different than those living today. Racism still abounds and the law remains tilted towards white thanks to money, power, and greed. And within that belief lie those who see its problems while refusing to correct them. The challenge of realism isn’t therefore creating villains, but sympathizers too weak and scared to publically admit they’re wrong.
This film overflows with exactly that type of character to ensure its audience never dismisses any one person’s capacity for growth or decline. It’s a crucial necessity so Thornton can naturally move things along at a methodical pace while constantly sprinkling in quick bursts of violence through premonition and/or memory when tensions rise. Talk about a hanging comes with the tonal aside of a man pulling a rope. A conversation alluding to a white man wanting to rape a young black girl is met with a brief glimpse of her despondent, bloodied face. Maybe these moments are relevant to the present plot point or maybe they’re meant to evoke an emotional response connecting their actual reveal to these earlier tragedies. Either way they have us fearing the worst.
And they should considering the demons haunting each and every person onscreen. We know straight off that trouble is brewing because newcomer Harry March (Ewen Leslie) asks the barely there, church-less town’s preacher (Sam Neill‘s Fred Smith) where he got his “black stock.” Fred proceeds to explain that the person Harry points at while presenting his query (Hamilton Morris‘ Sam Kelly) is an equal. He doesn’t own Sam in any form of the word—slave or “free” man forced into unpaid labor. They exist together and treat each other with respect. So Harry plays nice, asks for Sam and his family’s (Natassia Gorey Furber‘s wife Lizzie and their niece) help, and proceeds to lead them to his property. It’s there that his true nature is revealed.
Harry is a former soldier suffering from a bad case of PTSD. We know this through his actions (the almost ceremonious routine of cleaning and firing his weapon) and muttered words. He’s drowning under what he’s done and seen, funneling his anger onto those he believes don’t matter. It’s the epitome of privilege when he takes what he wants but isn’t his and the definition of uncontrollable shame when he kicks the Kellys off his land in the aftermath by making up lies to justify the abruptness. So when Harry arrives back at Fred’s place frenzied and gun drawn while searching for a young black boy (twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan as Philomac) he believes wronged him, Sam’s act of self-defense carries motive of which he’s yet unaware.
Off he and Lizzie run, knowing that his not firing first is meaningless in comparison to the color of his and his victim’s skin. On his tail is a town drunk Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), his “slave” Archie (Gibson John) as guide, town lawman and army man Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) seeking blood, and Fred hoping to keep the peace so Sam can stand trial in one piece. The chase shows us the beauty and desolation of the Australian desert as well as the reality that this isn’t the countryside of those in control (whites). They are thieves and squatters, men with guns who literally couldn’t survive this place without those they’ve trampled upon. This allows Sam an opportunity to disappear forever if only circumstances allowed it.
To say more would be a disservice because despite seeing a chained Sam sitting in front of a judge (Matt Day) who asks whether he understands why they are there within the first five minutes, we don’t yet know the journey to that point. Thornton has to provide us with the details of these broken men and their vices—sober Fred’s penchant to swear and assumed former drinking problem mastered by God’s will, Kennedy’s desire to “help” Philomac a way to assuage his guilt from working Archie to the bone and giving men in town worse than he the benefit of the doubt, and Fletcher’s thirst for action and authority quenched by a domineering relationship with Anni Finsterer‘s Nell and malicious pursuits of men he presumes are guilty.
It’s these troubles that allow the characters to fly off the handle so rapidly in the moment before clarity in hindsight reminds them truth is never so simple. We watch self-hatred drive allies apart, self-preservation destroy morality, and faith risk everything in order for loved ones to survive no matter the outcome. We witness the duality of the indigenous characters too whether its Archie’s understandable need to not be seen as expendable, Philomac’s youthful opportunism, or even Sam’s internal war between pride and love. Victims and aggressors are all positioned for a tumble and those who eventually do stand tall opposite adversity have as much potential for physical ruin as spiritual gain. And in the end we must acknowledge how law is meaningless if those enforcing it cannot.
Complicated central themes without concrete solutions are often sacrificed by hopeful Hollywood endings—Thornton’s great Samson & Delilah toes this line too—so watching everything unfold here with drama, emotion, and a pregnant air of futility proves refreshing. The subject matter is always harrowing, but authenticity is never sacrificed in service of that tone. Story is what’s important with each character acting as a result of who they are and their difficult relationship within its message. This is why the briefest of glances from Brown, Wright, Leslie, and Morris can stop you in your tracks more than anything else. It’s their recognition of personal errors whether they’re willing to change or not that resonates by showing progress is possible if we’re strong enough to embrace empathy over discord.
[1 & 3] Photo by Mark Rogers
courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films