At the culmination of The Hateful Eight (2016) and Django Unchained (2012), American writer/director Quentin Tarantino observed the western genre has as much to say about the time that the film is set as it does about the time that the film is produced. Filmmaker Warwick Thornton does exactly that with his searing outback morality tale, Sweet Country (2017). The powerful and poetic film features some of the most exquisite Australian visuals ever captured on-screen: landscapes that ripple with heat, blinding glare, and the inescapable, suffocating, blood-coloured dirt. Co-writer David Tranter brought Thornton a profoundly tragic and true family tale as the basis for Sweet Country and with the help of collaborator Steven McGregor, one of the writers behind Redfern Now (2012–13) and Mystery Road (2018–present), they crafted a script rooted in justice both mythical and judicial.
Right and wrong, black and white, life and death: the country beneath our feet is ambivalent to our human plight.
It’s the 1920s, deep in the Northern Territory of Australia. After a job helping a deranged soldier-turned-settler Harry March (Ewan Leslie), Sam (Hamilton Morris) returns to his boss Fred Smith (Sam Neill) with tales of exploitation and abuse. As Smith (Neill) is away, March returns to his farm to seek reprisal for an imagined slight. In a kill or be killed situation, Sam (Morris) pulls the trigger in self-defence and takes flight with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber). After all, he’s a “blackfella” who killed a white man and this is Australia. The law – Sergeant Fletcher (Australian cinema veteran Bryan Brown) – begins a relentless pursuit and March, a former soldier, is declared by default “a good man”. Smith – assured of Sam’s innocence – goes along for the ride.
Sweet Country is set in the years immediately following World War I, the first 20 years of Australia’s time as a nation, when our society wrestled with establishing a post-colonial identity. In the wake of Gallipoli, a colossal defeat, and demonstration of British military ineptitude, we forged tales of mateship, solidarity, and flexed greater independence from the Commonwealth. Ewan Leslie’s soldier returns from the front intent to make a living in this hard country. Rather than a stiff upper lip and grit like the usual portrayals of war-time heroes in films produced of the time (and often since), audiences are given a refreshing impression of shell-shock that’s amplified in the deafening expanse of the continent’s red heart. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix at his absolute best) is shown for the truly damaged degenerate that he is. His intersection with the sanctimonious jackals of the neo-religious cult (a stand-in for Scientology) feed on post-war prosperity and existential crisis.
Thornton registers the toll of the war on March and the isolated home-front simultaneously. The character’s psychological stability hinges on the tilt from colonialism to nationalism. In Australia, this pivot follows an uneasy path between the rejection of authority and blind servitude. There’s a biological imprint of white Australia’s ancestors dragged kicking and screaming to an expansive new prison world that permeates our cultural identity. To reconcile their place in this extension of British society, they use First Peoples as a ladder step. Taking your place in dominant Australian culture meant standing on those deemed hierarchically ‘lesser’, those drowned out by the fallacies this nation propagates.
In the American West, so many of the stories wrestle with how their “West was won”. Yet for a country with a dangerous outback heart, there are too few tales of the Australian frontier. The opening of Thornton’s Sweet Country is a bubbling coffee pot over a fire. As the organic black liquid boils, about spill out of the seams, a white hand tames the bloom with two doses of white sugar. While the metaphorical taming of black with pure white addictive poison is the visual platter we’re anchored to, there’s an off-screen commotion (the significance of which we’ll have to wait until the film’s final climactic minutes to understand). Gorey Furber’s Lizzie makes the movie’s ultimate sacrifice, with women of colour often burdened with that responsibility throughout colonial history; the continuation of life and bearing children under the most horrific of circumstances.
Sweet Country is an electrical current popping and dancing between the time of production and the time depicted. The frightening reality that we must stare into as we watch is that the personal struggles of the characters are the same struggles for a national identity happening nearly 100 years later. Mainstream Australia’s omission of the uncomfortable, bloody, racist and white supremacist history of this penal colony turned occupied extension of Western civilisation continues to plague Australia today. We are the beneficiaries of stolen goods and for this, Sweet Country’s message is essential.
– Blake Howard, Australian film critic and award-winning podcaster behind Michael Mann’s One Heat Minute