“We’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord,” says a benevolent rural preacher in the opening scenes of “Sweet Country” — but the Lord’s eyes are evidently cast far from Alice Springs, the ravishing but spiritually soured landscape against which Warwick Thornton’s graceful, soulful, quietly incendiary Outback western unfolds. Marked by the same poise and care with which Thornton’s 2009 debut “Samson and Delilah” exposed the present-day marginalization of Australia’s Aboriginal community, the director-cinematographer’s second purely narrative feature probes the same social injustice in the bitterly divided frontier society of 1929, where one black man’s necessarily violent act of self-defense brings the white population’s most toxic racist dogma to the fore. The spare, classical chase drama that ensues is seeded with barbed observations on colonialism, cultural erasure and rough justice, kept poetically succinct by Thornton’s lithe, soaring visual storytelling.
Stately but universally accessible in its deft genre touches and border-crossing political import, the mostly English-language “Sweet Country” has the makings of an international arthouse talking point, sure to reach far more eyeballs than Thornton’s already healthily distributed debut. Sales should be lively following the film’s Venice competition premiere, followed by a prestigious Toronto Platform berth. Sam Neill’s presence in a critical role should be a selling point both domestically and abroad, though this is a true ensemble piece, generously allocated among its fine actors. Indeed, much of the tension and structural surprise in this beautifully paced film derives from its many, unexpected switches and reversals of character emphasis — which drive home the sense of a story being told about a far larger community than the one shown on screen, without skimping on individual human detail.
It’s the landscape, however, that first strikes you, more than any one inhabitant thereof. Scorched but rustling with life, painted with a rough-bristled brush in streaks of ochre, its vast expanse means different things to different people. To white settlers like Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), it’s an unspoiled space of opportunity and potential expansion; the Aboriginal locals who work as their servants and stockmen, however, see first and foremost the land that has already been over-developed in their eyes, those vast stretches taken from them, built up and sullied. Thornton’s muscularly panoramic cinematography doesn’t resist the natural splendor of his own native Northern Territory, with its mustardy savannas, glittering salt flats and solemn rows of bluegums bent like gothic arches. He even takes time to drink in a couple of streaky cerise sunrises, knowing full well that such lush pictorialism only shows up the ugliness of human acts committed in the foreground.
The democratic decency with which he treats his black station workers makes the aforementioned preacher, Fred Smith (Neill), something of a local outlier. More typically bigoted attitudes are held by his neighbor Mick Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), who thinks nothing of belt-beating a young boy as punishment for perceived theft; new arrival Harry March (Ewen Leslie) is more lethal still, an unhinged, alcoholic war veteran whose exploitation of servants extends to sexual abuse and unprompted confinement. Lent the services of Smith’s taciturn right-hand man Sam Kelly (the superb non-pro newcomer Hamilton Morris) to set up his station, March repays the favor with no such generosity. In a harrowingly sustained, methodically blacked-out scene, he rapes Kelly’s wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber). Later, in bullying pursuit of scrappy half-caste child laborer Philomac (jointly played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), an aggressive confrontation with Kelly lands March a fatal shotgun bullet in the neck.
March’s death gives his unwilling slayer no choice but to flee: Kelly and Lizzie make a run for the farthest reaches of cattle country, as a quartet of literal cowboys, including the concerned Smith and the irrationally bloodlusting Fletcher, gives chase. The cat-and-mouse game that follows is unhurried yet still tensely knotted. Thornton uses no fevered cross-cutting to intensify matters — merely the steady, palpable accumulation of the characters’ anxiety — but follows the structural traditions of vintage American westerns. (There’s even a taste of Johnny Cash on an otherwise music-free soundtrack.) All the while, the usual moral weights and stakes of the genre are redistributed: Killer becomes victim, protectors of the peace become instigators of conflict, and it’s fair to say the good guys aren’t clad in white, so to speak. Expectations of a climactic showdown are subverted, too, in a riveting, process-driven second half that trades the long arm of the law for the more compromised reach of the courts.
In its exploration of legal and bodily liberties, “Sweet Country” emerges as a furious slavery narrative of sorts, and one that should resonate with audiences far beyond Australia as the global history of human possession continues to be rewritten from multiple viewpoints. An initially cryptic prologue — in which a violent fight between a white station master and a black worker erupts off-camera while the camera fixates on a boiling cauldron of indeterminate contents — turns out to be the thematic key to Thornton’s potently reticent film, projecting cathartic healing to come, whether in the space of the narrative or beyond it. Nick Meyers’ seemingly simple editing, furthermore, is riddled with complex signposting: A particularly elegant system of sharp, glitching flashbacks and flash-forwards portends the fates of assorted peripheral characters, suggesting the latent violence progressively poisoning two opposed communities.
In a film heavy on loaded but understated detail, the choice of the last name “Kelly” for the film’s beleaguered Aboriginal runaways is by means unconsidered. At one point, a silent picture show dramatizing “The True History of the Kelly Gang” — led, of course, by Ned Kelly, the white bushranger bandit who became an Australian folk hero — is screened in the village square, to the delighted whoops and cheers of the gathered white locals. That these same viewers cheer on the Kellys’ criminality, while baying for the blood of his black namesake for an unexamined act of apparent law-breaking, is an irony “Sweet Country” hardly needs to underline. Nor does it turn tables by grandly anointing an alternative hero: Played with stern, aching gravity by Morris, its fugitive demands little more than the freedom to be left alone. In this clear-eyed, full-hearted film, despite all those magnificent miles of surrounding sweet country, it turns out that’s a tragically big ask.