Warwick Thornton (director)
Thunderbird Releasing (studio)
09 July 2018 (released)
This multi-award winning, gripping Australian ‘Western’ – set in the unforgiving Northern Territory during the 1920’s, is as much an exercise in violence steered by prejudice as it is an attempt to highlight the plight of the country’s native Aborigine people – then and now.
Aboriginal Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) is employed by mild-mannered and fair-thinking preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) as a farmhand. One day, Smith asks Sam to help one of his neighbours, embittered war veteran cum farmer Harry March (Ewen Leslie), to help renovate his cattle yards. Not only is March a bad-tempered and foul-mouthed individual but to make matters worse he makes no attempt to hide his dislike for Aborigine people, as exemplified in his unfair treatment of young native boy Philomac (Tremayne/Trevon Doolan) who ‘has the nerve’ to steal a watermelon from Marche’s field… presumably because the poor boy is hot, thirsty, and generally mistreated by March who punishes Philomac by chaining him onto a nearby rock. Meanwhile, March – whose relationship with Sam quickly deteriorates when he realises the man is proud of his native roots and won’t be easily intimidated, secretly molests Sam’s wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) and threatens to kill her and her husband – not to mention molesting the couples teenage daughter – should Lizzie say as much as a single word! When preacher Smith needs to go away for a few weeks he asks Sam and his wife to return to the farm to look after the house during his absence. Sam then asks the preacher to take his daughter along with him to ensure her safety as he begins to suspect March is up to no good.
As the mercury rises, so does March’s bad temper, not made better by the fact that young Philomac manages to escape, still in his chains, and sets off to run away from March who, together with mate Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright) is hell-bent on catching him. Naturally March and Kennedy assume that Philomac might be hiding out at preacher Smith’s farm, knowing full well that the latter will be away for a few weeks and the farm is now entirely in the hand of Aborigines. He isn’t far wrong with his assumption, for Philomac hides indeed inside a shack close the farmhouse, though Sam and Lizzie genuinely have no idea the boy is hiding on the farm. When an angry March arrives and demands that Sam hand over the boy he tries in vain to explain that he has no idea where Philomac is, instead, March begins shooting through the window and door. In an act of self-defence Sam shoots at March and kills him. Knowing full well that the consequences will be for killing ‘whiteman’ and understandibly having little faith in the Australian justice system, Sam and Lizzie flee across the Outback followed by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), another Aborigine hater, and his posse. A deadly cat and mouse game ensues though initially Sam and Lizzie are in a slightly better position as they are more familiar with the deadly terrain, including poisonous insects. Nonetheless Fletcher, after having lost a few of his men along the way, manages to capture Sam and Lizzie and brings them to town where an angry community screams for revenge. But as Judge Taylor (Matt Day) begins with the open air trial, some uncomfortable truth about the murdered Harry March begins to surface as do the motives for Sam Kelly’s apparent cold-blooded murder. Will justice prevail and will Sam be acquitted?
Although Sam Neill and Bryan Brown are the big names, this is Hamilton Morris’ film and what a terrific performance he gives! Prior to SWEET COUNTRY, Morris’ only other film credit was in the 2015 movie 8MMM ABORIGINAL RADIO and it would be nice to see more of this actor. There is no incidental music throughout which makes the overall atmosphere all the more menacing though as the end credits roll, a song by Johnny Cash emphasises things.