There’s little lighthearted in Warwick Thornton’s tale about Sam, an Aboriginal man on the run for killing a white man in self-defence, though humour does occasionally break through.
Archie, brought along by the group of white men hunting Sam, is bemused that he should somehow be able to track someone through a barren landscape miles from places he knows, simply by virtue of being Aboriginal: “never been here before!” he offers, perplexed, highlighting the complete lack of understanding most of the white men have of indigenous Australian culture or geography.
Sweet Country is a scorching movie in every sense, with extraordinary performances driving this story about racism in 1920s Australia, where ingrained prejudices combined with a misplaced sense of injustice lead to an innocent man fighting for his life.
Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an Aboriginal farm worker who lives as one of the family on the religious Fred Smith’s farming station, is reluctantly loaned out by Fred to help new neighbour Harry March with some labouring.
March (Ewen Leslie) is a traumatised, racist ex-soldier; and as Sam, his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), and teenage niece Lucy head over to the other property it’s clear that wheels are being set in motion for something shocking.
Harry uses the casual racism of the day though not everyone is accepting of it. Pitching up at Fred’s for the first time, he calls Sam “black stock”. Fred (Sam Neill) has to put him right: “Oh no mate we’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord”.
As Sam works, Harry assaults Lizzie, an action all the more horrific for being unseen, after he has walked with deliberation round his room closing all the shutters. “I wanted the other one but you’ll do,” he says in the darkness, followed by a scream.
Sent back to Fred’s, Sam asks his boss to take young Lucy with him on his upcoming three-week trip into town, a last ditch attempt to keep the young woman safe. Meanwhile Harry has moved on to ask near neighbour Kennedy for help.
Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) another thuggish racist with the same dark hair and bushy beard as Harry, sends Philomac, a young boy who may or may not be his son. But after Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan) escapes the chains Harry has used to restrain him, Harry returns to Fred’s in a rage.
Harry is beset by PTSD. As he charges up to Fred’s house he shouts out to his long-gone soldiers: “Shut up, I’m in charge of this regiment!” and “Fred Smith, you harbouring a prisoner?” He fires shots into the house where Sam and his wife are cowering, and Sam fires back in self-defence. Slumped on the ground, Harry’s blood spurts and oozes out of his wound as his life ebbs away into the stones and sand.
It may be a clear cut case of self-defence but in a racist society that doesn’t stand for much; Sam knows that after killing a white man he and Lizzie must run. Soon a motley assortment of men – Fred, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), his assistant Dewey, and Archie (Gibson John) – are on their trail.
Fletcher is one of those men who will always side with people like him, whether police officers or former soldiers and his misplaced rage at Sam is horrifying.
But eventually everyone has to stop running through the harsh landscape, and the scene is set for Sam’s hearing. With a judge (Matt Day) brought in, but no courthouse, it is to take place outside the pub in the nearest town, Henry. (Town rather over-glamorises it; Henry is really just a few wooden buildings nestling in the dunes.)
The judge is a proper man of the law, unswayed by the racism of the drunk locals. He doesn’t appear to have any protection, expecting his role, title, suit and gavel to be enough.
It’s unnerving watching him rely on those trappings to carry enough legal weight in a town where he, Fred and Sam are vastly outnumbered. The spectre of mob injustice is never far away.
But the judge persists, and a witness’s comment on the murder is shot down, as they don’t know yet that a murder has been committed, just that Sam has killed a man.
In a beautiful landscape scarred by death, dialogue is pretty sparse, with Sam particularly reticent – yet Hamilton Morris’s performance (his first in a professional role apparently) is extraordinarily affecting.
Lizzie has even fewer words, but her refusal to describe her assault in front of the town at Sam’s hearing, her head bowed and her long curly hair hiding her, is devastating. Intersectionality won’t have been a term anyone would have recognised back in the 1920s but she’s persecuted both because she’s a woman and because she’s Aboriginal.
There’s also no background music, a decision which highlights the intermittent noises of hot and sweaty outdoor life. Lapping water, buzzing insects, blood pulsating out of that fatal neck wound.
In Thornton’s hands, the racists are also still complex, rounded individuals. Their bigotry is never excused, but everyone is more than just a racist or misogynist, because racism and sexism is woven into the fabric of their society, a society these people walk through every day.
I’m sure Harry March was racist before his horrific experiences of war, but his trauma adds another layer of loneliness and paranoia, which drives his desperation.
There’s a realistic lack of redemption with only one character changing, the catalyst for which seems to be the long slow drip of Fred Smith’s religious goodness into a parched land rather than because of what has happened to Sam. Kennedy – the farmer who has long belittled, assaulted and screamed at both Archie and Philomac – at lasts finds some semblance of fellow-feeling, though how long it will last is a moot point.
I saw this the same day I watched Brimstone, a long and violent 19th century Western starring Guy Pearce as a murderous reverend who will stop at nothing to destroy a young woman. Frankly they were a bit much to watch within the same 12 hours, but they had similarities. Both focus on a member of an oppressed group who has very limited agency, and despite morality and even the law being on their side, they are still forced to keep running in at attempt to save themselves. It’s a brutal and depressing lesson.
Watch the Sweet Country trailer here: