UK Release Date: 9th March 2018
Runtime: 113 minutes
Director: Warwick Thornton
Writer: David Tranter, Steven McGregor
Starring: Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey Furber, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Ewen Leslie, Matt Day
Synopsis: A black man is forced to go on the run when he is provoked into killing a white man, leading to a hunting party attempting to track him down to face the gallows.
The representation and treatment of black people is already proving to be a big theme in the world of movies this year, with Black Panther smashing box office records as a superhero movie with cultural awareness at its centre. Over in Australia, the resurgent western genre has now joined the race relations wave with Sweet Country, in which a black man is provoked into violence through hideous mistreatment and subsequently hunted down by dogged white authority figures, while gallows are ominously constructed in anticipation of whatever passes for justice.
Set deep in the outback, the film introduces Aboriginal couple Sam (Hamilton Morris) and Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), who work on a farm owned by pious preacher Fred (Sam Neill). Fred espouses the belief that “we’re all equal in the eyes of the lord”, but has no problem lending some of his “black stock” to howlingly racist war vet Harry March (Ewen Leslie). When Harry inevitably subjects Sam and especially Lizzie to horrifying abuse and violence, it sets into motion a chain of events that leaves Harry dead and Sam on the run from Javert-like lawman Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown).
Aussie director Warwick Thornton‘s fifth non-documentary feature is a stunningly lensed journey through a world of rough justice and hideous prejudice. It’s a patient and quiet movie, dotted with arresting images and flashbacks and flash-forwards that seem to leak into the narrative. In the aftermath of a shockingly violent act, a character’s blood leaks slowly and symbolically from a neck wound as their life and hope ebbs away. Thornton is far more interested in creating a tone than he is in keeping the narrative moving apace en route to its gripping finale in an impromptu courtroom, assembled on dusty streets.
The most remarkable thing about Sweet Country is in the performances Thornton brings out of the non-professional Aboriginal actors. Hamilton Morris, whose character is described as a “milder breed” of black man early on, delivers a performance of real intensity. His turn embodies everything the movie does right, with quiet power achieved through minimal dialogue. The same is true of Natassia Gorey Furber as Morris’s wife, who accomplishes a great deal without saying much at all and, indeed, her standout moment comes in her reaction to a horrific event that plays out in the inky blackness of a dark house.
For all of its power, though, there’s something about Sweet Country that’s rather unmemorable. With the western genre in the ascendancy right now, this is a movie that seems destined to fall away in the shuffle. It’s not as immediately accomplished as this year’s Hostiles or the pitch-black Brimstone and its wistful sense of meandering storytelling doesn’t lend itself to an immediate gut punch. It is, however, an intriguing and engrossing tale of misplaced justice that ends on a sobering note of finality.
Pop or Poop?
The controlled meandering of Warwick Thornton’s western drama Sweet Country is often a joy to behold, but there’s something about the film that doesn’t quite linger when the credits roll. It’s beautifully shot, though, and performed with real, believable intensity by the non-professional cast members, as well as the ones with more complete entries on IMDb.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.