Taylor Antrim/ Vogue
As popcorn films continue to vie for box office dominance this weekend, an impeccably made and quietly gripping Aussie film called Sweet Country slips into theaters in New York and Los Angeles (ahead of a wider release next week). It’s a movie that deserves our attention—a Western, a meditation on colonial racism, and an old-fashioned tragedy.
Set in frontier Australia in 1929, Sweet Country tells a simple story, one inspired by true events. When an Aboriginal man named Sam Kelly kills a white rancher in self-defense, he goes on the run with his wife across the outback to escape a posse sent to bring him to justice. The white man was a soldier, nasty, brutish and bent on misusing the indigenous workers around him. They’re not slaves exactly, but they work for whites, for rations only, and are subject to the whims of their bosses.
And those whims are often cruel. Sweet Country, whose director, Warwick Thornton, and cowriter, David Tranter, grew up in central Australia and are themselves indigenous Australians, is unflinching in its portrayal of the corrupting dynamics of colonialism. This is a film set in a dusty past, in a far-off place, but it is plainly and forcefully a film about racism writ large. When whites have all the power—even the well-meaning ones, like Fred Smith (played by Sam Neill), a religious man who insists that all people are born equal—justice and due process are meaningless. Never mind that the whites survive in this hostile landscape only thanks to the help of their Aboriginal servants.
That dynamic comes into play in the gripping middle section of the film, which is a chase sequence, one in which Sam Kelly is infinitely more equipped to handle himself in the acrid, desolate world of the outback than the men hunting him down. He even steps in to keep the posse leader, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), alive in an extraordinary act of humanity (and self-sabotage). Kelly is played by Hamilton Morris, an indigenous actor for whom this is a first feature film (one of several newcomers in the cast), and he has an incredible gravity. He owns the scenes he’s in, speaking to his tormentors out of a seemingly depthless dignity, even as the punishment coming to him, unjust as it is, has the inevitability of fate.
Sweet Country is a somber film, but not a didactic or overly worthy one. It has pace and suspense and a kind of visual poetry in its images of the vivid and desolate Australian landscape. It makes heavy use of silence—there is no musical score—which means you hear the insects of the outback buzzing in nearly every scene. The ending is not easy on the viewer, but it is an important reminder that some stories are, simply, tragic. And tragedy should be this unflinching.