The new western Sweet Country may be set in the Australian outback, but you don’t have to squint very much to see that it reckons clearly and forcefully with our own shameful past – America’s original sin of slavery. Directed by Warwick Thornton, the film is spare, deliberately paced, and almost Biblical in its search for moral justice in a harsh and lawless landscape. This is a forgotten place. The dirt seems too dry for anything to grow, swarms of flies buzz and drone like an Old Testament plague, and the sweaty, dust-covered men who live there (and they are mostly men) drown their hardships in drink and abuse of the black aboriginal workers they treat as property.
One of the more progressive and sympathetic white men (at least relative to the other characters in the film) is Sam Neill’s preacher, Fred Smith, who treats his aboriginal farmhand Sam (Hamilton Morris) with a degree of respect. But then Fred is visited by Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a new neighbor who needs help putting up a fence. He asks if he can borrow Sam and his wife and niece for the job as if he was asking to borrow a plow or a mule. Fred agrees since it’s the Christian thing to do. But this leads to a terrible – if not entirely unpredictable – tragedy. After raping Sam’s wife, Harry will end up drunkenly threatening Sam, and Sam shoots him in self-defense. From then on the film becomes a manhunt for Sam and his family in the harsh tribal lands of the Northern Territory led by an Ahab-like war veteran (Bryan Brown).
The story is spartan in its simplicity, but the visuals are gorgeous, capturing the cruel beauty of the desert not unlike the way John Hillcoat’s The Proposition did back in 2005. The director, Thornton, is a big fan of breaking up the film with quick flashbacks and flash-forwards that give the outcome of the film a doom-drenched air of fatalistic inevitability. It mostly works. The same could be said for the rest of the film. Sweet Country is a powerful tale that takes its time telling it. It’s a movie about injustice that may be set half a world away, but still feels painfully close to come.