Warwick Thornton's Australian western deserves to be ranked alongside the other great revisionist westerns of the last 30 years
Australia, Northern Territory, 1929. When a bitter, alcoholic army veteran (Ewen Leslie) turns up at the farm of gentle Christian Fred Smith (Sam Neill) asking Aborigine lodger Sam (Hamilton Morris) and his wife (Natassia Gorey Furber) to help out on his ranch, you can immediately tell this scenario is only going to end one way… Soon Sam and his wife are fugitives in the blistering outback trailed by brutal lawman Sergeant Fletcher (an extraordinary Bryan Brown) and a posse that includes Fred, his neighbour and the neighbour’s slave, Archie (Gibson John).
It’s a simple fugitive plotline (based on true events) that we’ve seen many times before in the genre but Warwick Thorton (Samson & Delilah) audaciously turns the familiar setup into a scathing comment on the futility of racist colonialism and the denigration of people through savagery and attrition. The white characters are all full of shame and self-loathing, while the black indigenous characters display a fearful sycophancy in constant reproach from their masters.
Like Miklós Jancsó’s great Hungarian western The Round-Up, the director boldly chooses to eschew any musical soundtrack, in turn letting the ambient sound of rising heat, cicadas, boots on dust create a mesmeric audio canvas. Just as impressive is Thornton’s cinematography, acting as both director and cameraman here. In full-frame widescreen, he conjures up some of the most evocative landscapes ever seen in Australian cinema. A hallucinatory scene where Fletcher and his horse get lost on a vast white saltflat is astonishing in its pacing and editing.
But it’s not just technical brilliance the film boasts. Every performance is remarkable, especially from the indigenous cast: a heart-breaking open air court scene draws raw and emotional power from Morris, Furber and John. As lean and as taut as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, as savage and atavistic as John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s The Proposition, Thornton’s monumental Australian western is up there with the best revisionist westerns of the last 30 years.
Sweet Country screened at Glasgow Film Festival 2018
Released 9 Mar by Thunderbird Releasing