February 2018

Arts & Letters

Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’

By Shane Danielsen
The Indigenous Australian filmmaker redefines the Western

We make Westerns for the same reason the Inuit make igloos: because the landscape disposes us to. The immense sky, the rust-coloured earth, the vast, barren spaces of our interior … how could Australian filmmakers not feel compelled to use these? Hollywood claims the genre as its own, as distinctly American as jazz and school shootings, but history argues otherwise: the first Australian feature film – the earliest feature-length narrative film in the world, in fact – was Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, made in 1906. (And two years before that came a short, Bushranging in North Queensland, made by the Salvation Army’s Melbourne-based Limelight Department. Which, improbably enough, was one of the first dedicated film studios on the planet.)

In recent decades the genre has fallen from favour, yet certain filmmakers continue to try their hand, in part drawn to the breadth of canvas it affords, and intrigued by its potential for subversion and complexity. Once boasting a simplistic, black-hat-bad moral clarity, the post-revisionist Western is another beast altogether – an engine of disruption, capable of interrogating historical notions of racial, social and economic injustice. Less Zane Grey, in other words, and more Cormac McCarthy.

Now Warwick Thornton has thrown his hat into the ring, with Sweet Country, his first theatrical feature since Samson and Delilah, the deserved winner of the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. That film was a small masterpiece, sly and dogged, disarmingly big hearted; this one, by contrast, is merely good. The shortfall can be attributed in large part to its script, which ironically lacks precisely those qualities – nuance and ambiguity – most intrinsic to its maker’s style.

It’s 1929, the Northern Territory. Into a ragged, barely coherent community (and the film is very good at suggesting the tenuous status of a newly federated Australia, the nebulous boundaries dividing traditional lands, cattle stations, smallholdings and towns) arrives a newcomer: Harry March (Ewen Leslie). A war veteran, still shell-shocked by his experience in the trenches, Harry has purchased a farm. But its fields lie fallow, and having no “blackstock” of his own he’s obliged to borrow some workers from neighbouring properties (played uniformly well by non-pros Hamilton Morris, Natassia Gorey-Furber and Gibson John).

Almost from the second Harry appears, he’s a threat – hurling abuse at the “lazy” farmhands, leering at the women. A competent actor, Leslie is given nothing to work with here: he’s one-note Bad, and as such might as well be twirling a cartoonish moustache.

Indeed, so thoroughly beastly and unhinged is Harry that he fails to advance the narrative in any meaningful fashion, as there is never any real doubt how far he will go or what he’s capable of. And so his actions – which, yes, include rape, and, no, that’s hardly a spoiler – are tinged with a kind of weary inevitability. Of course he beats his workers. Of course he attacks that girl. What else do we expect? Given the limited terms by which he’s been defined, it would be a twist worthy of M. Night Shyamalan if he displayed so much as a flicker of self-knowledge or remorse.

Everyone is the hero of their own story. This truism, so rarely remembered in daily life, is the first principle of writing a credible character: apart from a handful of damaged sociopaths, found mostly in talk radio and the Trump administration, it’s difficult to imagine anyone rising in the morning and thinking, How can I be utterly monstrous today? Yet it’s hard to picture Harry thinking anything much at all, because he doesn’t appear to want or even need anything in particular. His land has to be worked, although he’s not especially invested in the result; you never for a instant get the sense he’s going to be an exemplary or even an adequate farmer. Yet nor is he quite shambling or abject enough to be the hopeless drunk at which his behaviour occasionally feints. He’s simply whatever the script requires him to be at any given moment, a void of pure utility. This may, of course, be a consequence of the filmmaker’s world view; Thornton might consider most whitefellas (of that period, at least) to be utter bastards. But if so, this constitutes a failure of dissent as much as of imagination. To refuse to ascribe complexity to the oppressor is to ameliorate the evil of his actions, because it denies the possibility of a moral conscience that the oppressor chooses, for his own purposes, to ignore.

Set against him, meanwhile, is Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a neighbouring landowner and a figure of almost saintly rectitude. Fred lends Harry the Indigenous workers Sam Kelly (Morris) and his wife, Lizzie (Gorey-Furber), whom Harry proceeds to exploit and debase. When they rise up against him (there’s a subplot involving the half-caste son of another neighbour), Sam and Lizzie are obliged to flee, inspiring pursuit from a hard-bitten local sergeant (Bryan Brown) and nudging the story towards something resembling action. The limits of the couple’s choices at least have a historical foundation: not only is the story based on a real-life case, but as Sam will later, flatly, tell a magistrate, “I killed a whitefella.” And then as now, there’s no coming back from that.

A more ambitious screenplay might have paused to examine (or at least hint at) how Fred’s kindly patronage is itself merely another form of ownership, albeit one with teeth bared in a smile instead of a snarl. But no shadow is allowed to intrude upon his sunny integrity. We’re firmly in the realm of white and black hats here, and there’s never a moment’s doubt as to which sits atop Neill’s still-handsome bonce.

Quite apart from all this are the not-inconsiderable sensory rewards of Thornton’s filmmaking. He’s an uncommonly patient storyteller, content to let scenes play out and to allow the viewer to find their own way into what they’re watching. At times, you feel part of a process, a more-or-less equal partner in deciphering and ordering the narrative; at other times, you’re outside it, ravished by light and colour. Watching him work, you realise how astonishingly few Australian directors demonstrate any deep or abiding pleasure in their chosen medium. How few seem actively energised by the act of image-making. Cate Shortland, a jagged sensualist, is one; George Miller, devoted to velocity and force, is another. But for the most part, a workmanlike proficiency reigns, overly indebted to TV aesthetics and flat social realism. In this sense, at least, Australia remains very much a British colony.

The Western comes with its own set of conventions, and a good deal of this film’s pleasure resides in watching Thornton quietly, coolly set about undermining them. His treatment of the chase is linear, reminiscent of Anthony Mann’s great 1953 oater The Naked Spur, but elsewhere he takes satisfaction in dashing our expectations. The lawman becomes the antagonist. The climactic showdown never really happens. But for a Johnny Cash song over the closing credits (“There’ll Be Peace in the Valley”, which feels ever-so-slightly too ironic for its own good), he omits any musical score. Working with editor Nick Meyers, Thornton devises some audacious cutting: darting backwards and forwards in time to show the consequences or the origins of actions – or needle-skipping sideways to more finely detail the circumstances of some peripheral character. All in single shots, some arrestingly brief. Initially cryptic, this fragmentary technique becomes the film’s most noteworthy feature: expanding outwards from the primary drama to chronicle the fate of an entire community, poisoned by racism, violence and mistrust.

Even so, once Sam and Lizzie begin their journey, you can almost sense Thornton’s relief at having dispensed with the plot mechanics that brought them there. I suspect that, in his heart of hearts, Thornton’s not truly a narrative filmmaker at all – an impression first inspired by his 2013 ghost story project, The Darkside. His real passion, it seems, is for mise en scène – for composing images (he trained as a cinematographer), working with natural light, and framing and blocking. Not purely for its own ends – not just to make pretty pictures – but, rather, to communicate specificities of place and mood, and the cultural experience of his people.

Watching Sweet Country the first time, at the Toronto International Film Festival, I found myself occasionally becoming impatient with its pacing. There seemed a lot of dead air, of unnecessary stasis. And then I remembered I felt much the same about Samson and Delilah, a film I adored – and, come to think of it, about Catriona McKenzie’s Satellite Boy, and even Ivan Sen’s Toomelah. Only later did it occur to me that the problem, rather than lying with these films, might in fact be my own: I was expecting these texts to conform to my expectations, instead of meeting them on their own particular terms.

Perhaps, I thought, this is what a truly Indigenous Australian cinema might look like. Maybe this is how such a thing might play: the attenuated pacing, the space between lines, the sense of stalled action. Maybe it ticks to a different clock, offers up a whole other, separate sense of onscreen time. You could certainly take a pass at its editing here – could, for a start, comfortably trim the tops and tails of many if not most shots – and what would emerge would be a leaner, more concise, more conventional film. But it also wouldn’t be true to its culture, and it wouldn’t be Warwick Thornton’s.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

February 2018

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