Sweet Country, 2017.
Directed by Warwick Thornton.
Starring Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris, Matt Day, Tremayne Doolan, Trevon Doolan, and Ewen Leslie.
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.
Australian westerns are a rarity, so whenever one shows up, I can’t help but feel a little tingle of excitement. There’s something about the Australian outback that bleeds through the screen and fills me with a sense of bleakness that I have never felt from a conventional western… and I love it. Films like The Proposition are so misanthropic that they can’t help but get under your skin, and their racial commentary is biting. Thus, I had high hopes for Sweet Country. Fortunately, it didn’t disappoint.
Sweet Country’s main story arc of follows Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) as he flees from the arms of the law after killing a white man. Hamilton, like many actors in this film, is a newcomer to the business, but it certainly doesn’t show. His portrayal of Kelly is understated, making the moments where he expresses true anguish all the more shocking and impactful. There were moments where a little more life could have been brought to the character, but overall his performance was commendable.
Despite it’s relatively straightforward story, Sweet Country’s array of characters brings the simple tale to life. Each character is clearly defined, as are their motives, and there is not a single bad performance. Industry heavyweight Sam Neill even brings a little bit of humour into what is otherwise a very sombre film without throwing the tone off-kilter. One scene in particular, which sees Sam’s Fred Smith sing the song ‘Jesus Loves Me’ to a group of soldiers and ranch owners, received a chuckle from the whole cinema.
It is this array of characters that really give the film its soul, turning it into less of a chase thriller and more of mood-piece that revolves around a (not so sweet) country, whose inhabitants and climate can spell death in an instant. This pervasive atmosphere is enhanced through the film’s editing. There are no fast cuts between the hunter and the hunted, no drastically rising music, and no formulaic climax at the end of each build. The only quick cuts are to silent, anachronistic scenes that foreshadow what is to come without giving too much away, and the lack of payoff at the end of every single build up gives the whole film a sense of uncertainty that makes you grind your teeth and clench your fist until your knuckles turn white.
Though the film’s dismissal of traditional thriller tropes is perhaps its most effective feature, it also gives rise to the film’s most disappointing aspect. With climaxes a rarity, the audience puts a lot of weight on each and every potential peak. However, these moments don’t always live up to their own hype. Confrontations can feel meaningless or far too discreet, and gunfights lack punch. This would be disappointing in a more conventional film, but this disappointment is amplified by the films constant teasing.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the film totally lacks impact – the inciting incident and closing scene pack a real wallop – all I’m saying is that for many scenes, the journey is far better than the destination.
I would not describe Sweet Country as a film that blew me away. Nevertheless, it’s a very well put together film that entertains two hours away with ease. Though it might not reach the highs it aimed for, it landed on a lofty enough pedestal for me to give it a hearty recommendation.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
James Turner is a writer and musician based in Sheffield. You can follow him on Twitter @JTAuthor