The church is raised but its influence fails to prevent a chilling climaxTHUNDERBIRD RELEASING

In the age of the superhero, cinema rarely treats us to the bygone days of the western formula. One typically associates Stetson-wearing men riding horses through vast expanses of sand with the likes of John Ford and Sergio Leone, motion picture escapism at its finest. Going in to Sweet Country, such treats are anticipated, and soon blown away to kingdom come. Warwick Thornton starts by putting the pot on to simmer, and it almost immediately boils over.

The very indirectness of the film’s horror is what allows Thornton to penetrate the mind and harass it for days. Rather than simply pan off-screen, we begin and end in the shadows, even daring to submerge the auditorium in darkness for the duration of a uniquely harrowing act of sexual violence. In doing so, the typical pitfalls of cinematic exploitation are avoided, its stark reality drawing a startling response from the viewer. When the gore does come spilling out, it is sharp and unexpected, staunchly refusing to revel in the typical sadistic pleasure of shoot outs and hangings. By the end of the film, the golden era of the western genre feels positively barbaric.

“A study on the uneducated white man and his fear of the Other”

The words ‘sweet country’ appear twice in the film, once in earnest, once in bitter regret. Thornton, as director and cinematographer, wages war between these binaries in both the spiralling narrative and the shooting of the imposing landscape. With the action smattered throughout the picture, time is left to breathe in the Australian open, and embrace its surroundings.

We empathise greatly with Sam Neill’s prophetic Fred Smith and his unyielding devotion to the divine. When he is absent from the scene, we long him to return and protect our Aboriginal protagonists, led by Hamilton Morris in a deftly delivered debut performance. Under the hues of a rainbow and the pity of the world, the conclusion reminds us of humanity’s distance from God, and its devastating consequences.

Trailer for Sweet CountryYOUTUBE

Another missing element is a score, the eardrums filled instead with a natural soundscape at once resplendent and disconcerting. The moments of complete silence register all the more profoundly as a result, so far from the bombast and triumph of an Elmer Bernstein march. They accompany moments of reflection and of forethought, events interrupted by the dreams, memories, and futures of the central players.


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By blurring the lines between these mental images, Thornton prevents interpretation from emerging until the finale. It almost demands a retrospective second watch, albeit one that requires some meditative respite beforehand. Two stand out above the others – a taut rope bisecting the screen as men haul up the gallows, and later the façade of a church before an open-armed Neill. They raise the manifestations of law and faith, and yet for all they represent, neither manages to win the day.

There is a moment when Bryan Brown’s Sergeant Fletcher bursts through a canvas cinema screen, an early western projected on his face, as he cries out for the cackling crowd to turn away from such romanticised nonsense. Having just led a manhunt through the wilderness, and come nigh of dying twice, his plight seems justified in begging for empathy from a character almost entirely despicable.

As we make our way through the conclusive court case, he too appears to change in stance, the jeers from the mob haunting any being with a moral compass. While dealing specifically with racism in the outback, Thornton provides a further study on the malicious nature of the uneducated white man and his absurd fear of the Other. It might only be a Sweet Country on the surface, but its deeper troubles are shown to be woefully universal

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