???SWEET COUNTRY ?????????
(MA) Selected cinemas (113 minutes)
When Warwick Thornton's Samson and Delilah was released in 2009, reviewers were nearly unanimous in announcing the arrival of a major new talent. Looking back, I think we were right: a sophisticated yet immediate teen love story that did wonders with its non-professional Indigenous leads, it was the kind of debut not seen too often from anywhere, let alone Australia.
Thornton's long-awaited second narrative feature has strengths of its own, but not the same immediate emotional force. Perhaps it's because this time he didn't generate the material himself, and his screenwriters - Steven McGregor and David Tranter - often seem to be wandering the central Australian desert without a map.
Set in 1929, Sweet Country could be described as a western - or at least the latest in a series of politically charged Australian period pieces that rework aspects of the genre, such as John Hillcoat's The Proposition and Rolf de Heer's The Tracker.
Like those precursors, Sweet Country is a man-hunt film. The man being hunted is Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), an Indigenous stockman who goes on the run with his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) after shooting a sadistic landowner (Ewen Leslie). Pursuing the fugitives over the red sands and salt flats is a group that includes a dogged police sergeant (Bryan Brown) and a cagey tracker (Gibson John).
Two more local landowners are also involved - one of them cynical (Thomas M Wright), the other a Christian (Sam Neill) with a professed belief in racial equality. On the sidelines is the teenage "half-caste" Philomac (played by twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), an onlooker destined to carry the moral burden of the story into the future.
Shifting between vantage points, the film leaves us guessing where its centre is meant to be: none of the characters serves as either a conventional protagonist or offers a perspective that can straightforwardly guide our responses. The most sympathetic figures, like Lizzie, tend to be the most inscrutable - and many of the strongest moments involve painterly compositions that hold the characters at a remove, both physically and otherwise.
This leaves the film at risk of an incoherence which Thornton does little to ward off. It's unclear if he thinks he's making populist entertainment or an art movie, and he barely tries to bridge the gap between the non-professionals in the cast and "icons" like Brown and Neill (to say nothing of Leslie, whose studiously casual manner suggests a collector at a vinyl swap meet).
That the disjunctive approach is at least partly deliberate is confirmed by a strange intertextual sequence built around the classic Australian silent film The Story of the Kelly Gang, and by eccentric editing that highlights the spaces between the characters - not just between representatives of white and Indigenous cultures but also, for example, between Sam and Lizzie after the latter is raped.
Still bolder is the use of brief flashbacks and flash-forwards that work like footnotes within scenes (when Philomac denies stealing a watermelon, the visual record says otherwise). These abrupt flashes of memory or prophecy help braid the film together, transcending the perceptions of individual characters while suggesting how past and future define the significance of each moment.
This technique resonates all the more given the choice of period setting; after all, a child born in 1929 could still be alive right now. Clearly, the film is intended to speak as much to the present as to the past, but it would be a mistake to see Thornton as a straight-up "message" filmmaker.
Just as he sidestepped a potential tragic ending for Samson and Delilah, here he seems bent on offering an alternative to the sweeping nihilism of a film like The Proposition (a counter-proposition, as it were). While some of the white characters are racist brutes, others are presented - even to the point of disbelief - as humane and enlightened (at least by the standards of their day).
In balancing the books this way, Thornton could be accused of playing it safe or collapsing into the thematic vagueness of so much Australian cinema. Still, the open-ended irony of his title carries its own kind of challenge, leaving it to us to consider if the country might retain some redeeming sweetness after all.