What it's about: Sam Kelly is an indigenous Australian who works as a farmhand for a tolerant man, overseeing his land and house. Harry March, the new owner of a neighboring farm, comes to ask Sam's employer to loan his staff for a little extra work that needs to be done. March is a cruel and lustful man who mistreats Sam and his family before telling them to leave. March then turns to another land owner to use his working men, including a young boy named Philomac, who March chains up outside overnight. When Philomac escapes, a drunken March violently confronts Sam looking for the boy. In self-defense, Sam kills March and goes on the run with his wife through the unforgiving Australian wilderness.
Sweet Country gets its title from a line of dialogue, spoken by the sergeant tasked with finding Sam in the wilderness. The journey across northern Australia is certainly beautiful [director Warwick Thornton primarily works as a cinematographer and it shows], but the environment is far from sweet -- certainly, there is a bit of irony in his statement.
This is an untame, unrelenting world. Both nature and men are cruel. From the perspective of a racial minority, this is only amplified. The opening scenes before Sweet Country becomes a search film are increasingly difficult to watch. I don't know if the film ever reaches a moment of grace as counterbalance, but it thankfully doesn't keep up its early pace.
Sweet Country is made like a classic American Western. There are shades from The Searchers to Deadwood in the characters, the community, and the vast desert. This story could have been made in 1940s Hollywood, though probably letting up on some of the violent tones.
With this classic genre framework, archetypal characters and plot, the film adds its purely Australian specificity. Indigenous Australians don't often get their stories told on screen and I've certainly never seen one in this context. While the American Western isn't without stories on the racial divide between white and black men, Sweet Country is a unique take on a culture losing their identity in service of another.
The film dives deeply into issues of race, masculinity, justice, family, sexual assault, and how they all intertwine. In the form of a Western, these themes are explored in a world that is drastically changing -- Sweet Country ends with a character directly questioning whether this world has a chance to survive, and certainly it doesn't.
While Sam is the film's prominent character, the film takes significant time exploring others. Perhaps the most interesting is Philomac, the young boy who essentially instigates the events leading to Harry March's death. Philomac is in an interesting position socially as the son of his white employer and an unknown black mother. He represents the dying culture of the indigenous culture as well as the violence from their white masters.
One intriguing stylistic flourish which brings the film out of the classic Western style are a few brutal quick flash forwards to what looks like the aftermath of a horrible massacre. At times, a character will be introduced and then a quick cut of that character covered in blood will be shown. I'm not sure if the technique is entirely successful or if it pays off particularly well, but the images stick. They keep the violent and dower tone in mind when things seem to be heading in a more positive direction.
The final third of the film shifts into the trial of Sam for the murder of Harry March and it is a surprising turn. After seeing the black characters consistently being treated as subhuman, the finale is taken seriously. There is no indication that once Sam is caught he wouldn't be immediately shot, let alone be given what seems like a fair and balanced trial. It is also a clear way for the various subplots to come together, for characters to directly reckon with their actions and the actions taken upon them.
I'm all-in on late-stage grisled Sam Neill character actor. He isn't a large part of Sweet Country, but his characters is incredibly important. As Sam's employer, he offers the film a bit of humor while being one of the only white characters with any redeeming qualities. He definitely has some fun in that role.