Compelling and uncompromising, “Sweet Country” is anything but sweet. A bleak story presented with great style, it’s a finely made Australian western that demonstrates the malleability of that most American of genres as well as the impressive gifts of Indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton.
Thornton’s first film, “Samson & Delilah,” which he wrote, directed and photographed, won the prestigious Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2009. Here Thornton contents himself with directing and shooting a story set in such a cold, brutal and lawless world it makes classic Hollywood westerns look like dude-ranch picnics.
While many familiar tropes are present, including murder, mayhem, a tough lawman and a tentative posse, Thornton uses them to tell a 20th century outback story and offer sharp, pointed commentary on relations between whites and indigenous peoples.
Helping him tell it are strong performances from two icons of Australian cinema, Bryan Brown and Sam Neill, as well as memorable work from a handful of non-professional aboriginal actors.
Thornton not only blends these elements gracefully, he understands that the different acting styles enable him to make the key points in David Tranter and Steven McGregor’s script.
The setting, the MacDonnell Range area near Alice Springs in central Australia, is one Thornton and co-writer Tranter know well, having grown up nearby. It was in fact a story told to Tranter by his grandfather that was the inspiration for the film.
As vividly shot by Thornton and Dylan River, the startling, hypnotic beauty of the physical landscape is what we notice first. This is an unnerving, unforgiving land where no one seems totally at home, the handful of white residents least of all.
“Sweet Country” is set near the fictional frontier outpost of Henry in 1929, a time when, says Thornton, “we indigenous Australians weren’t technically slaves but we worked for free, worked for rations.”
This film, however, has more than that wrong on its mind. It presents a world where whites and aborigines are completely alien to one another, sharing English but never speaking the same emotional or psychological language.
“It’s a place where Indigenous and non-indigenous people push against each other like tectonic plates,” is the way the director describes it. “It’s a clash of cultures, ideologies and spirits.”
Deciding to use only natural sounds and present his film without music, Thornton proves himself adept at creating impending doom, a sense of menace slowly gathering like storm clouds on the horizon.
Adding to the sense of disquiet is “Sweet Country’s” decision to fracture its narrative style, punctuating the story line with numerous mini-flashbacks and flash-forwards. That technique insures that we never feel quite at ease, that it takes awhile for us as an audience to get our bearings.
Seen first is a lone rider headed toward an isolated cabin. That would be Harry March (Ewen Leslie), new in the neighborhood and wanting a favor from fellow rancher Fred Smith (Neill).
Smith is also lay minister, which accounts for his racially tolerant “we’re all equal here” attitudes toward his aboriginal stockman Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) and Kelly’s wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber).
March wants a favor — he wants to borrow Kelly to help him set up his ranch — and though Smith is reluctant, March manipulates him into a yes by whining “it would be the Christian thing to do.”
What no one knows yet but is soon revealed is that Smith, who spent three years fighting “the Bosch” during World War I, is suffering from PTSD. His habit of self-medicating by getting furiously drunk is of no help to his ferocious temper.
Also glimpsed is the property of Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), another short-tempered alcoholic whose workers include Archie (Gibson John), a stockman with a luxurious white beard, and Philomac, a teenager with a mischievous streak played by identical twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan.
All these incendiary individuals and situations come together in an all-hell-breaks-out shootout that leaves a “white fella” dead and enrages Sgt. Fletcher (Brown), the top law enforcement agent in nearby Henry.
The sergeant puts together a ragtag posse determined to bring likely suspect Sam, who has fled to the outback, to justice. In a world this upside-down, that proves to be a more complicated endeavor than anyone anticipates, and “Sweet Country” never flinches from showing us how it all goes down.
Rating: R, for violence, bloody images and for language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles