The vast, open landscape of the Australia outback so closely resembles the Old West that it’s a wonder there aren’t more Australian westerns. “Sweet Country,” Warwick Thortnon’s hypnotic sophomore effort, makes up for missed time. This gorgeous, sprawling tale of early 20th century desert survival and racist villains packs the brutal punch of Sam Peckinpah, but folds the majestic vistas and gunplay into a disquieting statement on persecution with echoes of “12 Years a Slave.” Thortnon’s leisurely approach applies the Dirty Dozen formula to a historic tragedy, and the uncompromising narrative doesn’t always resolve the tension between those two ingredients, but it’s nevertheless a remarkable elevation of the Western trope to poetic heights.
Set in 1929, “Sweet Country” unfolds across the desolation of Alice Springs, a sweaty, red-tinted region of the Eastern Arrente Nation, which may as well be Mars. Aborigine in the Northern region struggle under the persecution of white men, but the soft-spoken Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) evades the country’s uglier side by working for benevolent preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) at his remote church. The semblance of a stable environment crumbles with the arrival of nasty criminal Harry March (Ewen Leslie), who arrives on Fred’s doorstep asking for a helping hand to reach a nearby site. Fred lends him Sam and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), whom Harry proceeds to rape while torturing Sam to the point where he fears for his life. After a harrowing, violent showdown, Harry winds up dead, leading Lizzie and Sam to go on the lam in the middle of nowhere while a posse follows their trail.
So begins this quiet, patient immersion into no-man’s land. Thornton, who previously explored the emptiness and the specks of lives roaming through it on a smaller scale with the rural romance “Sampson and Delilah,” opens up his style to a grander tapestry. Acting as his own cinematographer, he follows the posse across orange, rocky vistas and into a flat sandy maze as the sun barrels down from every direction. When they aren’t fighting the elements, they’re fighting the natives; meanwhile, Sam and Lizzie continue to make their way toward an unknowable destination. There’s an aura of despair lingering over this quest, the sense that no matter where they wind up, they’ve already been rejected by a society that dehumanized them long ago.
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However, Thortnon pierces the unnerving atmosphere with colorful personalities who contribute to a sophisticated dynamic. While the crude Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) leads the mission to hunt down the fugitive, he’s closely followed by Aboriginal yes-man Archie (Gibson John), a bearded submissive whose frantic efforts to please his bosses suggests he made peace with his lot in life long ago. Further complicating matters, they’re joined by Fred, played by Neill as a gentle soul incapable of talking sense into the cruel men surrounding him. In a brilliant maneuvering of tone, he sings an old Christian song as the men settle for the night, while his cohorts look on, emotionless. A minute creeps by and he keeps going, singing off-pitch but defiant about it. The moment reads like a deadpan flare going up in a sea of sorrow.
Fred’s consternation at the rejection of his kind-hearted Christian ideals sits at the center of the movie as it creeps toward the bleak finale. He provides a constant reminder that all is not lost, someone wants Sam and Lizzie to survive their journey, and the tension that comes out of this morality play adds an undercurrent of suspense as the movie creeps along. The movie hits a snag with its sluggish finale, a legal showdown in a small town that’s a lot less enthralling than the chase leading up to it. Nevertheless, it’s revealing to watch the entire cast attempt to answer questions about the nature of this conundrum and struggle to find the right words. (Asked about his old boss’ abusive tendencies, Archie can only muster, “That white fella is mad.”)
While “Sweet Country” snakes along to an inevitable outcome, Thornton retains a sharp control over the movie’s ravishing visuals, assembling them with a rhythmic quality that transcends any specific time and place. “What chance has this country got?” Fred asks, to no one in particular, and the response is just dead air. “Sweet Country” lingers in that silence, mining for answers in the staggering beauty of a natural world, and coming up empty nonetheless.
“Sweet Country” opens in limited theatrical release on April 6.