Movie Review: Sweet Country

By Thom Compton 07.04.2018

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Sweet Country (UK Rating: 15)

Sweet Country is, especially for an American who was unaware of such things, a gut punch. Perhaps a life of Steve Irwin and The Rescuers Down Under tricked a young boy into thinking that Australia was a place where people were both rugged and humble. Real jovial folk who could beat down a kangaroo if it got too near them. Sadly, humans are a predictable species, and if given the chance to degrade one another, they are all too often tempted to do so.

Sweet Country - out now across selected cinemas in the UK via Thunderbird Releasing - is, at its core, about Sam, an aboriginal man who lives with his wife, his niece, and Fred. Fred, unlike many of his neighbours, has these aboriginal people living in his home, and treats them not as items, but as family. A God-fearing man, Fred believes that Sam and his family are not only there to help around the house and the land, but also as his family.

Unfortunately, other people don't agree. Nearby lives Kennedy, a brutish, yet occasionally sympathetic man, who also has several Aboriginals helping around his house. The most interesting of them is Philomac, a young boy who isn't afraid to upset the master, so to speak, if he stays safe. He has a free spirit to him, and while he generally respects Kennedy (and Kennedy him, despite the willingness to fly off the handle at even the slightest sign of wrongdoing), he's still a troublemaker through and through.

This is where the final piece of the puzzle comes in: Mr. Harry March. Harry is, for lack of a better adjective, an awful person. He comes with all the swagger and tact of drug dealer, introducing himself by offering alcohol and tobacco to Fred in exchange for Sam and his family working on March's property for a few days. Fred declines the trade, but has Sam go with Harry anyway. This is the catalyst for what turns out to be a significant moment in all of their lives, and it's all because Harry March is just such an awful person.
This, and a few other little sips of nitro-glycerine, results in Sam murdering a man. A white man, which has much more significance than you might assume. This is the Outback, before any sign of egalitarianism, at least on a broad scale, was visible. Sure, it seems that a judge met later in the film isn't interested in the fact that Sam is black, but he also seems to come from a different place. Beyond the obvious comment he makes of coming from a different place, he seems to exist in a different train of thought, like he can't believe people still think like this. Still, the time period was a stain for Australia, similar to how slavery and Jim Crow were stains for America.

It's a haunting film that depicts an apathy for one's fellow man that was prevalent in the time period, and a lot of what happens could leave you feeling terrified; terrified at the very notion that someone could view another human being in such despicable terms. Director Warwick Thornton accomplishes not only making viewers empathise with Sam by being very forthcoming with information, but also presenting everything with a taunt, powerful bluntness.

There's no music to dampen the experience or provide any clues of when madness is about to ensue. This leaves the viewer stranded, floating unprepared in a sea of elitism, racism, and violence. That violence, by the way, is actually pretty tame throughout. Thornton shows enough gore and bloodshed to impress people with its realism, but not enough to make one feel overwhelmed by it. No, he leaves this for the non-fatal blows. Kennedy and March both treat their workers like dogs, even when Kennedy shows some signs of empathy, and viewers need only watch the masterful way Thornton combines the visuals with the noises into a plate of unrestrained chaos to feel for the aboriginal people in the film.

Further exemplifying the film's power is the performances of absolutely every actor who gets more than 30 seconds on-screen. Sam Neil, who plays Fred, maintains a steady presence through the film, and as always brings a degree of sophistication to every utterance he makes. Hamilton Morris, who plays Sam, feels so real in the character it's hard to imagine Thornton had to give him any direction at all. Literally no main cast member is poorly chosen, resulting in a spectacle that is carried not only by its dark but important subject matter, but also its cast.

Equally amazing is how Thornton doesn't give the audience much rope. There's no lifeline, no saving grace to make viewers feel better when the sun is beating down on a wandering sergeant or Archie, another aboriginal under the employ of Kennedy, seems to be making Philomac's life harder at every turn. This isn't the kind of picture that wants you to feel good because racism was overcome. It's the kind of film that takes what little rope it gives you, and hangs you with it, choking you throughout as you wonder how things could get worse for everyone involved. It's not trying to make the viewer feel good. It's trying to portray a story that could, and possibly even did, happen at some point. The old adage is that "pictures can't lie," and by not dressing everything up with a pretty bow to keep things from getting uncomfortable, Thornton has provided a great truth with this piece.

The one caveat is that one character, a sergeant sent out to help catch Sam, has a lot more to his back-story then anyone really gets to see. It's hinted at, with the film's unique cut-aways, but it feels much more important than its given time to actually be. It's still hard to tell if the situation is what it seemed, or if it's something much more malicious or benign. While it isn't a huge detriment to the whole experience, it does feel like a lost opportunity to explore another character better.

Rated 9 out of 10

Exceptional - Gold Award

Rated 9 out of 10
Warwick Thornton had a vision, and that vision was an unflinching look at the atrocities committed by a few men. It's a brilliant and bold picture, and it's shot with a scalpel-like precision that feels both uncomfortable and profoundly necessary. Every inch of Sweet Country feels like leather soaked in bourbon thanks to using authentic locations, and some of the best acting to come out in a film this year. For all its cinematic glory, though, the story it's telling is far more important than the bells and whistles, and it's told so well that it's honestly hard to be mad about the hang ups.

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