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March 10, 2018

Sweet Country review – lean, unfussy Australian western


The Guardian/ Wendy Ide

4 out of 5 stars

Warwick Thornton adds a mythic edge to his 20s-set outback crime tale.

Rangy and lean as a cattle dog, Warwick Thornton’s 1920s-set tale of racial tension and rough justice in Australia’s Northern Territory is an intriguing mongrel mix of cinematic bloodlines. The most obvious influence is the western. When Indigenous Australian farm worker Sam (Hamilton Morris) is forced to shoot a drunken white landowner in self-defence, he and his wife, Lizzie, (Natassia Gorey-Furber) head out into the bush, pursued by dogged lawman Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and a posse that includes Sam’s friend and employer, Fred Smith (Sam Neill). The “decent man forced into violence” is a stalwart of the western tradition – there’s a touch of the stoic resignation of Gregory Peck in Henry King’s The Gunfighter in Sam’s tacit resourcefulness. But, with a scene featuring a rowdy screening of The Story of the Kelly Gang (thought to be the first feature-length film ever made), Thornton also nods to Australia’s own frontier legends.

But there is something else: a sparse yet mythic quality that owes a debt both to the oral tradition of the country’s indigenous people and to the religious parables that are a guiding force in the lives of those who fall to the light side of this starkly delineated morality tale.

A few flash-forward premonitions notwithstanding, this is storytelling with an unfussy directness. Thornton eschews a score, instead foregrounding the sounds of the bush. And the look of the film is as striking as that of his earlier picture Samson & Delilah. This sweet country leaves its mark on the men who live on it – clothes, skin, even sky are all smeared with a dust the colour of dried blood.