Australian western set on the Northern Territory frontier in the 1920s, where justice itself is put on trial when an aged Aboriginal farmhand shoots a white man in self
defence and goes on the run as a posse gathers to hunt him down.
Review by Louise Keller:
Artfully conceived and executed, Warwick Thornton's period outback western mixes potent themes and striking imagery. It's hard-hitting and tough to watch as harsh cruelty takes centre stage in the guise of murder, rape and discrimination. The themes are slavery and lawlessness; the imagery (through Thornton's lens) includes expansive red skies, desolate vistas and silent rusty red rock faces. The narrative weaves its way through the imagery, offering a glimpse of life in the late 20s when Aboriginals are treated as 'black stock' and local lawmen believe they are the law. It's a haunting film that involves from the outset and most importantly we are able to understand the characters - albeit stereotypical - and as unlikeable as they mostly are.
The film begins with a close up of the bubbling black liquid contents of a cauldron in the dead of night. Disturbing sounds of violence are heard but not seen in the background. Thornton uses the same approach during the rape scene, in which the window shutters are closed. While the resulting darkness may not offer images of what is going on, we have no doubts. Nick Meyer's astute editing proffers brief flash back and flash forward sequences that exacerbate the density and richness of the characters. Playing with time brings a different perspective.
The landscape is the star, but there is great support from Sam Neill as the man of God in a godless town who believes that 'all are equal in the eyes of the Lord', Bryan Brown as the cruel local sergeant who makes and lives by his own rules, handsome Matt Day as the just Judge whose makeshift courtroom is outside the local pub and Hamilton Morris, the non-pro Aboriginal newcomer with extraordinary facial features, who is the catalyst for the action. The rest of the cast is excellent, too.
Just like Samson & Delilah enticed us into a claustrophobic reality, the ironically named Sweet Country does the same. The lack of a music soundtrack is conspicuous but the sound of Johnny Cash's rich, dark tones singing the gospel tune Peace in the Valley feels just right - as a rainbow appears in the dark sky bringing a window of hope.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Sure enough, it's a Western as it's claimed, in that the story is set in a wild frontier where white man is encroaching into land and culture, and where the law is something of a stranger. Justice is hand held. Retribution is arbitrary. But it being a Warwick Thornton film, there are layers and layers of suggestion, not surprisingly with a keen eye for the indigenous angle.
It is, on any analysis, a simple story that is elevated by the way it is told. There are many editing shifts to dislocate us from the direct trajectory, and these are bejewelled by close ups that give us pause for reflection. A pair of dusty boots, for example. It's a risky idea, prone to be misinterpreted as shortcuts to 'art house' status... but there are not so many as to justify that criticism.
Having been acclaimed in whatever festival it has screened, the film arrives in its own country with high expectations. Many of these are met; some are not. For instance, the faintly drawn and widely spread characters keep us slightly distanced, and the determinedly measured pace takes its toll on our perseverance.
On the other hand, the beautifully articulated performances by the entire cast make the experience immersive. This sensation is heightened by Thornton's cinematography, which is superb; his eye for texture and contrast is effortless and powerful.
The decision to eschew any underscore works really well for this film, and this is ironically emphasised when the closing credits run under the Johnny Cash version of the gospel classic, Peace in the Valley For Me - it demonstrates how no kind of music would sit comfortably under a 1920s outback story with a strong indigenous flavour ... and didgeridoo would be too trite.
Although I can't say the film carried me away, I appreciate the sincerity and dedication of the filmmaking team - and was pleased to note an anti-piracy comment in the end credits to the effect that "By watching this film legally you have helped support thousands of filmmaking cast and crew..."
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SWEET COUNTRY (MA15+)
CAST: Bryan Brown, Matt Day, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan, Anni Finsterer, Natassia Gorey Furber, Gibson John, Ewen Leslie, Hamilton Morris, Sam Neill
PRODUCER: David Jowsey, Greg Simpkin
DIRECTOR: Warwick Thornton
SCRIPT: Steven McGregor, David Tranter
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Warwick Thornton, Dylan River
EDITOR: Nick Meyers
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Tony Cronin
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 25, 2018