Alan Zilberman/ The Washington Post
Rating: 4 stars
There’s a scene in “Sweet Country” in which a character is shown wandering the Australian Outback, on the brink of hopelessness. At that moment, we’re expected to share that character’s despair. That’s a big demand for any audience, but in this case, director Warwick Thornton (“Samson and Delilah”) earns that response, combining sensitive direction with strong performances and unflinching visuals to create a western of epic proportions. Though set in 1920s Australia, the tale has a moral force beyond time and place.
Events are set in motion by Harry (Ewen Leslie), an embittered, racist World War I veteran who asks his preacher neighbor, Fred (Sam Neill), if he can borrow the services of a laborer for help on his ranch. That laborer, Sam (Hamilton Morris), is aboriginal; Fred treats him with respect, insisting they are equals, so the man of God balks at helping someone who does not share his views. Eventually, Fred agrees, sending Sam to the ranch with Sam’s wife and niece. After an alcohol-fueled act of violence by Harry, Sam shoots Harry in self-defense, then flees.
“Sweet Country” is concerned with the fallout of that violence.
Seen through Thornton’s lens, the Outback is a more pitiless landscape than the American West, yet he frames it elegantly, as if to show why settlers might have been drawn there. His direction also includes a technique that is startling, even bizarre: After shooting from one character’s perspective, he then jump-cuts forward in time. Although it is not always clear whether these future events are actual or imaginary, the effect is powerful, showing us how unspoken prejudice infects this loose community of ranchers and lawmen.
Bryan Brown, the veteran Australian character actor, plays one of those lawmen, in a role that recalls his appearance in the 1980 Australian classic “Breaker Morant,” which also dealt with the question of real-world justice.
This shrewdly observed story asks another question: Is civilization possible in a nation where discrimination has such deep roots? In “Sweet Country,” the answer arrives with a tough fatalism. If the movie’s outlook is less than hopeful, it nevertheless suggests that there is still time to learn from our mistakes.