“It would be the Christian thing to do,” said the visitor, looking to take advantage of the host’s hospitality. The host (played by Sam Neill – who, while compelling in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople – feels out of place in this particular film) considers himself to be a good Christian man and reluctantly agrees and sends his farm hand, Sam (Hamilton Morris), to help the visitor (Ewen Leslie) on his new farm.
Sam is an Aboriginal man living in the northern Australian Outback, where even his boss’ egalitarian worldview isn’t a guarantee of a life free from racist abuse. Indeed, as his story unfolds, Sam’s righteousness only leads him further and further into exile and conflict with the state. Racism is built into the very structure of Australian society, and the film demonstrates this. Soldiers hunt him as he runs from an act of self-defence that resulted in the death of a white man.
Set in the 1920s, Sweet Country applies a classical Western aesthetic to this story while making clear that it is decidedly Australian. Director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton treats the land and the people with reverence, obscuring exploitative violence from the screen but letting us hear all the suffering inflicted. The film’s Western genre traits are literally colored by the red soil, the brown fauna and the grey sky. It’s beautiful but dreary, as tension bubbles under the surface, threatening to envelop all.
Formally, the film routinely breaks from the present with inserted flashbacks and visions. A woman touches the hand of a man, and we see the last time her hand touched him. A man’s faith is tested, and we see him looking to the sky in the rain wondering where God is now. A woman’s husband dies, and she looks back to a moment that felt truly free. No attention is called to these moments; they just come and go as thoughts and memories.
Some moments don’t land well, and any time the film diverts attention away from Sam and the other indigenous actors, it suffers. While none are professional actors, they give excellent performances that speak to the history of the land and peoples whose stories are being told. However, those flashbacks and visions are likely to stick with you long after the film ends. They feel authentically human and move you accordingly.