The bleak yet beautiful “Sweet Country” is a traditional western that’s eerily reflective of modern times. Set in the Australian outback instead of the wild west of the American frontier, the thematic parallels are no less alarming. A grim view of merciless racial tensions, relaxed brutality, and a loss of moral justice is conveyed through a gorgeous looking film that’s brimming with handsome visuals.
Set in 1929, aboriginal farmhand Sam (Hamilton Morris) works for kind preacher Fred (Sam Neill) in the country’s Northern Territory. After Sam is sent to help out a drunk and ill-tempered neighbor Harry (Ewen Leslie), some unspeakable events unfold that lead up to a violent shootout. Sam kills Harry and takes off into the vast wilderness with his wife, hoping to escape his fate.
The remainder of the film is part adventure and part courtroom drama. A hunting party (including a Sergeant, the preacher, and a ragtag band of farmhands) is formed to track Sam down, but he continues to stay one step ahead of them. The film’s deliberately slow pacing is given a forceful boost with director Warwick Thornton‘s unique storytelling method. It’s one that plays with time and place, full of carefully inserted flashbacks and flash-forwards that reveal the eventual fate of these characters. It’s memorable storytelling that instills an almost unbearable sense of dread, right down to the final scene.
The cinematography (by Thornton and Dylan River) is wildly impressive too, with sweeping images of the endless Australian landscape lending a somber visual reflection of the film’s themes of cruelty and isolation. Bringing home this desolate feeling is the choice to forego a traditional score and instead relying on the sounds of nature to provide the film’s sparse soundtrack. Sound plays an integral role in this film, and it’s equal parts horrifying and effective. These choices border on brilliance, especially in a western.
Unfortunately, the film is plagued with an arduous slow pacing that hurts it overall. At least twenty minutes could’ve been cut without diminishing the punch of the story and its political message. Although at times it’s uncomfortable to watch, “Sweet Country” works as a distinguished statement on integrity, authority, and bigotry and is a strong entry for the genre.