Warwick Thornton announced himself as a powerful new voice in Australian cinema with Samson and Delilah (2009), a haunting look at the problems confronting Aboriginal youth in contemporary Alice Springs, told with minimal dialogue and hard-hitting honesty.
He adopts a similar technique for his second narrative feature, Sweet Country, a frontier western set in 1929 that serves as an indictment on the impact of colonialism on the indigenous population. In some aspects it recalls 12 Years a Slave as much as The Tracker and The Proposition.
On a remote Northern Territory station, an Aboriginal stockman (Hamilton Morris) shoots and kills a volatile landowner (Ewen Leslie) in self defence and is subsequently pursued by a justice-hungry posse, led by the local sergeant (Bryan Brown).
Told through shifting character perspectives, Sweet Country unfolds in a very subtle and measured fashion, and the effect is totally immersive.
Like fellow indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen, Thornton’s deep connection to his culture and background as a cinematographer creates a unique fusion of character and landscape, where visuals speak just as loudly as words. Brief scene inserts clarify character motivations and provide backstory, and symbolism plays a striking part – the film opens with a close up on bubbling kettle of black coffee, which seethes from the addition of white sugar.
The performances from the non-professionals – including newcomer Morris and twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan, who play a young half caste named Philomac – match those of seasoned veterans like Brown, as a good man bound by the racist doctrine of the period, and Sam Neill, a Christian who believes all men to be equal.
Sweet Country‘s slow burn arthouse conventions may not be to all tastes, but the cumulative effect of its measured execution creates a memorable experience that lingers.
In cinemas: January 25, 2018
Starring: Bryan Brown, Sam Neill, Hamilton Morris
Directed by: Warwick Thornton