In our Film Swap Challenge series, our reviewers assign each other films to write about: films that one writer enjoys or values, and the other writer hasn’t seen – and which might be slightly out of their comfort zone! Here, Joel Thornton is challenged to write about Sweet Country by Kevin Wight.
Sweet Country is a 2017, Australian-produced Western movie, directed by former Camera d’Or winner Warwick Thornton. Based on the stories of Aboriginal persecution told to Warwick by his grandfather, the film details the sequence of events surrounding the self-defence shooting of one Harry March, an unhinged war veteran and “whitefella”, by the unassuming working man Sam Kelly, in 1929.
Taking the raw and gritty approach to this kind of genre works better here than in the modern films that popularised it (looking at Tarantino’s Django Unchained and S Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk). While we don’t quite reach those gory extremities quantity wise, I can definitely see the pulsating blood from Harry March’s neck in my mind’s eye with ease.
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This takes nothing away from Thornton, I don’t want to imply he’s so much as borrowing, as the unique visual takes that won him his Cannes award are certainly out in full force. Allowing flashbacks to take scene-centre, for example, without additional audio or wishy-washy, intelligence-insulting special effects is a brilliant decision that bolsters their emotional weight. They seem more current, like a veil over proceedings as opposed to some far-off land you must mentally travel to. Watching the alcohol-fuelled thrashes of Mr. March around his empty home, in dead silence, is about as strong an introduction to a character as you could give me.
In fact, strong character writing is the flavour of the day here, stylistics aside. If I was pitching to somebody to watch this, and they weren’t initially hooked by the premise nor the aesthetic, my next port of call would be a series of progressively louder shouts detailing the effort exuded to create genuinely compelling dynamics amongst the characters.
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The incident that sets everybody’s life ablaze can be traced, chaos theory style, to a conversation about Christian goodwill. Fascinating, isn’t it? How do you wind up dead coming to ask a favour? Man-of-god Fred Smith knows he’s being exploited, in lending his worker Sam Kelly (and his wife) to the despicable Mr. March temporarily to fix some paddock fences.
He’s over a barrel though… his doctrine dictates he should help any way he can. The chain of events that leads to verbal and sexual abuse, harassment, and ultimately murder stems out from something good-natured. Forced good nature, mind, and that says everything you need to know about Harry March. Either way, you cut forward to Sam Kelly, rifle in hand, stood over his twitching body in the heat of the moment and you’d never ever guess.
In the second act, things crank up in whispers as opposed to shouts. Starting with the seismic BANG of your main plot point and letting intentions and character profiles tangent off in an organic and reactionary way, instead of mercilessly shoe-horning your exposition, is a beautiful way to tell a story… so even in the slower moments of Sam’s short-lived flee attempt, there’s always something defining to sink your teeth into.
The ‘capture and trial’ portion of things is actually my favourite; there’s such a clear stance on the projected outcome in everyone’s head. The local workers and drunkards watch on from the front porch of the Henry Hotel and Tavern, fully expecting a kangaroo court (no pun intended) will condemn Sam to his death. Town rabble-rousers jeer of hanging, and when Sam manages to properly articulate what truly happened that day at Black Hill farm, it only gets more and more rowdy in ‘the stands’.
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The tension is near unbearable by the time Judge Taylor is to make his unenviable decision. Piss off an entire town by daring to rule against popular opinion, or kill a man out of pure appeasement. For as much as I have spoiled, I’ll go no further. The last fifteen minutes of Sweet Country ties up so wonderfully that I want you to expect nothing. Nothing of the ruling, nothing of its outcomes. Here’s hoping I too, can create enough tension that I won’t need to use my outside voice to get you to watch it.
I haven’t discussed the array of interesting side characters, their arcs and conclusions either… but I think I’ve hinted enough that those are plentiful. Thornton just does not stop building; there is always an extra dimension to add atop any given situation, always something to pry into further. Considering the grand payoff, as well as the many smaller moments of clarified constitution, I couldn’t be any more pleased with this method. There are few things quite as satisfying as seeing everything set up, set to work, with a plan in mind.
I am incredibly pleased to have been recommended this one and I’ll for certain be looking out for Warwick Thornton in the future.