Sweet Country (2018) Movie Review: Tense, Terrific Aussie Western

Warwick Thornton's new feature is a gritty, brilliant take on the genre.
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As I watched Warwick Thornton’s wonderful new film, Sweet Country, there were many thoughts going through my mind. One was how Thornton decided to let the story play out as it is, without any accompanying music. All too often, certain things can take the viewer out of a movie, and one of those can be its score. Sometimes, in the case of something like Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s a necessity, and it works extremely well. But in the case of Sweet Country, a dark and brutal western that explores a particular moment in the country’s history, there’s no need. It’s able to keep the somber tone throughout without any kind of score, making it all the more intriguing and intense to watch unfold.

It’s not a new method, obviously. The Coens did something similar with their 2007 Oscar-winning film, No Country for Old Men. The majority of that film went without a score, and whatever music was present was minimal, most of it appearing during the end credits. But Sweet Country takes a much bolder route by not having a single moment in which music is heard. Its main focus is on its characters and the dialogue they speak, and it excels in both of those departments.

Sweet Country is based on true events that occurred in 1929 Australia. That’s not exactly a common setting for a western film, and it’s also one that couldn’t be deemed as “modern day” like No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water, since it is set in the past. But Thornton doesn’t go with conventions, as one can see when watching his film. There are villains in Sweet Country, but they’re not the standard, run-everyone-out-of-town type. They aren’t kind people, sure, but the thing that makes them evil is how they react toward others, particularly the Aboriginal people of Australia.

The plot involves an Aboriginal named Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris, in a stunning debut). He works for a preacher named Fred Smith (Sam Neill), who neither smokes nor drinks and does his best not to swear. Sometimes, that gets the best of him, but he apologizes to God when it happens. One day, a World War I veteran named Harry March (Ewen Leslie) shows up to Fred’s, asking him for some help. Harry’s experience in the war has left him greatly disturbed, and each night, he drowns his pains in whatever bottle of alcohol he can find.

To a person like Fred, he sees everyone as equal, regardless of color. But to Harry March, he sees those who are Aboriginal as “black stock.” They are primarily for work, and they don’t get the same treatment as a white person would. Harry tries to take a young boy as a slave, but the boy escapes. When Harry comes across Sam, his anger and erratic behavior pushes him to believe that Sam is hiding the boy. Harry begins unloading his gun in the home in which Sam and his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), reside on Fred’s land. In self-defense, Sam takes a gun and shoots Harry dead. Since Sam is Aboriginal, he doesn’t think he stands a fair trial as a white person would, and flees the area with his wife.

With only the fact of a white man being shot by an Aboriginal, and unaware of the full situation, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) gathers a team to hunt down Sam and bring him to trial. But as Thornton shows us, Fletcher is also not an average villain. He’s a human being with a job to do, and he has to fulfill his duty. Thornton also provides some moments of quiet intimacy, as Fletcher spends an evening with his girlfriend before continuing his search for Sam.

Sam, himself, is also not a heroic figure. He is the main protagonist of Sweet Country, but he’s treated as someone with flaws, just like everyone else - good or bad - in the movie. His actions in the beginning were merely what anyone would do to protect themselves and their family. Thornton doesn’t turn him into the hero of the day with people thanking him for what he did or anything like that. Sam does what he can to survive, and hope for the best outcome of his situation.

There are a few scenes of action in Sweet Country, but that’s not what drives the film. It’s digging deep into the characters present and understanding them for who they are. Another way in which Thornton goes against conventions is by inserting clips of certain characters’ future outcomes or reflections of their past before cutting back to the current time in the story. In the beginning, we see Sam already standing trial, but then we are shown what happened that led to that point. As the film carries on, there are other moments that show what will happen to certain characters before it gets to the scene in which that event occurs. It’s an approach that happens quite often in indie filmmaking, and it works perfectly in presenting the scenes and then having the viewer question what led to the moment that was just flashed before our eyes.

Shot in just four weeks time, Sweet Country doesn’t seem like something that was low-budgeted. The cinematography gorgeously captures the sweeping Australian landscapes, and it needs to be experienced on as big a screen as possible. A flat screen television doesn’t do the imagery justice. Even in the film’s darkest moments, the scenery is massive and exquisite.

The western was something that was a staple of my childhood, and I still make an effort to see whatever film is released in the genre. Most of the time, they come across as pretty routine efforts, and there are some on which I question their existence, especially many released today. It’s so rare and so welcoming to see a movie like Sweet Country, which has the western feel, but doesn’t rely on stereotypes and shootouts. It’s one of the more realistic approaches to the genre, and one that makes a grand statement on the socio-political climate of Australia that can also have an impact on people here in America.

With strong performances all around, luscious camerawork, and a tragic yet captivating story, Sweet Country is one of the best westerns to come out in years. Thornton takes the simplest of plots and turns it into something that is unconventional, daring, and leaves a big impression on the viewer. It’s a breathtaking effort, and one of the best films to come out so far in 2018. As the year carries on, and I constantly tinker with my best of the year list, I’ll make sure to have room for Sweet Country. It’s certainly deserving of a spot on there.

                       Sweet Country releases in New York and Los Angeles on April 6.

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