Sweet Country review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s a quiet, violent, and contemplative nature to Sweet Country that makes this Western a flavor all its own. Set in the Australian outback just after World War 1, the film follows a farm hand, preacher, and war veteran on the dusty Northern Plains. There’s drama, violence, and plenty of bitterness going around from the isolation, despair, and racism of the region. What transpires is a Western that manages to be just as gritty and treacherous as any American Western. Perhaps more so.
The farmhand is Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an Australian Aboriginal who is more or less based on the true story of Wilaberta Jack. He’s employed by the preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a kind man who values Sam’s work. But Fred decides to loan Sam out to the veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie) who is nowhere near as pleasant. He’s drunk, bitter, and easily prone to beating on his employees with his short fuse. Sam’s family becomes an easy target; while he tends to the cattle, Harry will beat his son and rape his wife. Every man has his boiling point and Sam is no different, leading to him killing Harry when an act of self-defense presents itself. A manhunt and trial soon follow.
Director Warwick Thornton takes some interesting routes in weaving this story. He keeps a certain non-linear edge to seemingly quiet moments, where conversations are broken up with muted shots of aggressions in the past. It’s an interesting mix of blunt and subtle subtext, taking a peak at the real heat bubbling under the surface of every moment. This unique aspect carries a great sense of dread and danger that by the time the violence breaks out, it’s gripping.
This kind of grit is absolutely needed for a story such as this which could have too easily slipped down the familiar slope of melodrama in handling the racial and colonial aspects of European settlers and Indigenous Australians. There could have been some drawing out of the pain and persecution of the era, where somber violins accompany the scenes of man’s worst aspects. Not so with Sweet Country; the plains are kept relatively quiet with only the sounds of nature, shouting, and gunfire to set the mood of a troubled land.
I’ve learned since looking up this film that Sweet Country is considered a meat pie Western for being set in the Australian outback. This type of film has created an appetizing taste of a genre I seriously dig if there are more to come. The Outback setting looks absolutely gorgeous with its vast landscapes and gorgeous cinematography. The staging is brilliantly tense and brooding with an atmosphere that seems more akin to neo-Westerns with a slightly more intriguing twist of the region. And, yes, it holds an unrelenenting nature to its boldness that only the best of Westerns can showcase. It’s an emotionally driving picture that brings up the bitterness of history and stages it in a manner that lets the mind take in the cruelty rather than have it spelled out plainly. It’s just about everything an engaging Western should be.