Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country

He is an outlaw named Kelly from Australia, but his circumstances are entirely different from those of old Ned. Based on the historical figure of Wilaberta Jack, Sam Kelly will kill a white man in self-defense. It is entirely justifiable, but this is Central Australia in 1920, so Kelly immediately takes flight. His fictionalized treatment becomes the stuff of a revisionist Australian Western in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When Fred Smith talks about God and his Christian faith, he really means it. That is why Sam and Lizzie Kelly really are fortunate to work for him. Regrettably, Smith’s new neighbor, Harry March, a WWI veteran suffering from PTSD, is not so enlightened. He cynically exploits Smith’s Christian charity, guilting him into loaning Sam and Lizzie to help whip his station into working order. Unbeknownst to Sam, March will act in a predatory manner towards Lizzie and then dismiss them from his property. The next time they encounter each other, March is shooting up the absent Smith’s farmhouse, accusing the Kellys of harboring a young runaway aboriginal station hand, loaned to him by the exploitative Mick Kennedy.

Old Sam has little choice but to blast a load of buckshot into March. Having no faith in the white Crown’s justice, Sam and Lizzie head out into the wild country. Inevitably, the hard-charging Sergeant Fletcher forms a posse with Kennedy and the reluctant Smith to give chase. However, many of the town’s poor white rabble will be surprised by the professionalism of circuit court Judge Taylor.

Sweet Country would be something like an Australian fusion of Chato’s Land and To Kill a Mockingbird, if it were not so conscious of its own social significance. Thornton lays it on heavy and never passes up an opportunity for a teaching moment. Yet, response to the film will likely be particularly divisive because of his idiosyncratic practice of flashing forward to briefly depict a character’s most significant moment, either when they are first introduced or at times of extreme stress. Although it is initially disorienting, it gives the film a really distinctive vibe over the long run.

It is also intriguing to watch how Thornton observes and subverts Western cinema conventions. He certainly addresses the film’s moral issues in stark black-and-white terms, but it should be noted Smith is an entirely sympathetic and empathetic character and the grizzled Sgt. Fletcher evolves in intriguingly ambiguous ways.

The fact that Smith and Fletcher are played by two of Oceania’s most recognizable thesps, Sam Neil and Bryan Brown, certainly will not hurt the film’s prospects. Neil is particularly engaging and ultimately quite poignant as the decent Smith. Indeed, it is quite refreshing to see a devout Christian treated with such respect in a film. Likewise, Matt Day’s portrayal of the judge is intriguingly messy. He has his moments, both good and bad. Yet, it is the nonprofessional Aboriginal actors Hamilton Morris and Gibson John, who really power the film, as the taciturn Kelly and the more ingratiating Archie (just Archie, he says), Kennedy’s foreman, who serves as the posse’s tracker.

Both Thornton’s style and his conspicuous manipulations can be distracting, but his boldness earns the viewer’s respect. It is uneven, but it successfully differentiates itself from the scores of international Western riffs. Recommended on balance for fans of socially conscious revisionist Westerns, Sweet Country opens this Friday (4/6) in New York, at the IFC Center.