Sweet Country: Film Review
Cast: Sam Neill, Bryan Brown, Ewen Leslie, Hamilton Morris
Director: Warwick Thornton
Aussie director Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah was a searing commentary on the treatment (or lack thereof) of contemporary indigenous races in Australia.
Blessed with raw visceral power, that tale set the bar very high for the director - and also lit a fuse under Australian film.
So, it's a slight disappointment to report that Sweet Country doesn't quite measure up to that stunning debut, preferring to instil an at-heart Western with a large degree of unsubtlety throughout.
Set in the 1929 Northern Territories, it's the story of Sam (Hamilton Morris), an Aborigine caught up in the politics and the horrendous racism of the time.
Sent by preacher Fred Smith (a stoic, underplayed and heartfelt Sam Neill) to help a bitter, traumatised war veteran (played with seething bile by Leslie)on his cattle farm, Sam finds himself in the centre of an insufferable situation.
When conflict forces Sam's hand, he ends up on the run with his wife - and a manhunt led by Bryan Brown's Sergeant Fletcher begins.
Thornton uses time and confusion well in Sweet Country, with images from the start, middle and future of the film intersecting with current events throughout. It's a disorienting, smart move that keeps some of the ambulatory pace at bay.
Make no mistake this is a film that takes its sweet time getting to its (entirely predictable and tragic) conclusion. There's nothing wrong with that and Thornton fills the screen with great vistas and full-screen landscape shots that capture the outback at its most confrontational and testing.
Occasionally though, the lack of time and apparent time jumps prove to be a step too far, pushing the narrative where it needs to go at a pace that seems interminable to engage with.
It seethes too, with an undercurrent of hatred, of theft from countries and of darkness that men do.
"I wanted the other one, but you'll do" is one line that lingers deep afterwards, delivered with contempt and malice ahead of a venomous act the consequences of which linger long on.
But despite great controlled performances from the likes of Neill as a preacher and of Morris, a man whose face is etched with the pains and injustices of the past, Sweet Country lacks a path to conclusion that feels anything other than pre-laid out.
There's no way this can't end in tragedy, and perhaps that's Thornton's aim - to showcase the ugly brutality of life and the repugnant nature of those who've fought in wars, and the arrogance of the white man.
It's an ugly film in some ways, with racism, violence and language giving this Western a brutal truth which is hard to stomach occasionally.
Ultimately, despite Thornton's intentions to rise above its grubby gritty nature, the final feeling of Sweet Country underwhelms. Some leaps in logic and some strange time jumps rob the film of the authenticity which has gone before it.
It's to be commended for being a Western that has a different way of doing things despite a very familiar premise (manhunt, people wronged, good and evil), but Sweet Country, complete with its hammering home of politics - one character's final comments are "What is this country coming to?" isn't quite as powerful as it could - and should - be.
Its lack of subtlety robs of it the power it needs, and while the pace makes the journey's destination unfortunately not quite worth it - Samson and Delilah, with its more laid back approach to situation, conflict and resolution, packed more of the resolute punch that Thornton's follow up delivers.