Every morning, the adolescent aborigine Samson (Rowan McNamara) awakens to the sound of an amateur ska rhythm section warming up on the front porch of his hovel and, after pausing to woozily huff a long-empty can of paint, he pulls a soot-encrusted T-shirt over his head and joins them, strumming out ignorantly dissonant chords on his brother’s fake Stratocaster until the guitar’s owner haughtily rips it from his self-amused grasp. This matutinal ritual is easily the energetic highlight of Samson’s sleepy half-existence, a life built more around ameliorating occasional irritants than the survivalist imposition of self upon the outback landscape; in his case, living off the fat of the land mostly consists of lifting bare, calloused feet to avoid the fiery bites of mammoth ants, or swiping broken wheelchairs from children to stave off ennui.
In fact, Samson’s sun-dazed, petrol-sniffing routine is relentlessly repeated until a brutal sibling skirmish compels him to steal a truck and flee his soporific tin-shack-and-tumbleweed village with orphaned quasi-girlfriend Delilah (Marissa Gibson) in tow, though it’s less an assertion of independence than the acting out of a giddily inchoate pipedream for transience. He’s a kid who can’t even properly build a fire, and the one act of intuitive, indigenous gumption we witness from him is practically a gift from the pellucid blue Australian skies (Samson slays a wallaby that falls virtually on top of his makeshift mud bath).
Samson comprises one-half of the obliquely Biblical titular dyad in Warwick Thornton’s hypnotic debut Samson and Delilah, and under his vacant, heat-stroked gaze the film’s potential social resonance becomes una corda to the point of poetic confusion. We sense, in the languid, primeval pulp at the film’s center, dramatic inspiration both ecological and humanitarian: A pervasive issue among aboriginal youths, the paint and gasoline-fume addition inflicting the mentally devolved male protagonist feels like an incomplete exposé, and the village’s haphazard blend of bush biome and manmade pseudo comforts (dilapidated homes, shriveled foam mattresses, dirt-caked ghetto blasters) implies but never quite confidently renders the dismal plight of a people forced to unlearn their intimacy with a harsh land after Western conquering.
But as with Steve McQueen’s Hunger (coincidentally also the winner of Cannes’s Camera d’Or), the corporeal manifestation of socio-ethnic politics is one of Thornton’s many visual tools rather than his primary editorial goal. And even when his characters are opportunistically victimized to the brink of severe bodily harm (as well as, in one instance, the brink of plausibility), he observes them with a quizzical, near-painterly eye. All of Thorton’s urban-outback observations are swaddled loosely around a love story of sorts between the title characters too, though the romance mostly consists of distant, tribal emotions—Samson seemingly wants Delilah solely for the sake of their proximity in age and location, and her household skills—and sweetly precise gestures, such as a scene where Samson shoplifts grocery items for the starving couple while Delilah distracts a clerk with a meager purchase.
Thorton arrives at a culturally mismatched limerence not unlike the primary attraction in Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (an obvious photographic reference, given the setting and the fact that both Roeg and Thornton were their own cinematographers), though in that film the schism between white neurosis and indigenous custom lied between the characters rather than within them. But by examining the relationship between Samson and Delilah through the wrong end of the telescope, Thorton soaks in the arid, unaccommodating surroundings with occasionally oxymoronic lucidity: In the aboriginal village even temporary walls are scrawled with inner-city-like graffiti, an act of senseless ruination that seems, when juxtaposed with barren, craggy hills and thorny wild brush, like man’s last, self-defacing stand against a god as monolithic as he is apathetic.
And as with Walkabout, or the far more loquacious but no less regionally-obsessed George Washington, what remains after unpacking the film’s dusty, raisined imagery is an unshakeable dreaminess, an uncertainty that the movie’s non-events haven’t simply been a hallucination that sprang from the cylindrical canister to which Samson outsources his indolent fantasies. Samson is like a pathetic rock n’ roller without a mode of expression aside from aromatic therapy-induced sloth; he tosses his matted, orange hair back and forth, winds up bumming grub off of ratty, toothless, singing hobos, and blasts country music long into the night while Delilah watches from a safe distance in a parked truck with corridos marching from its radio. And in one rare moment of frustrated passion where he smashes his brother’s electric guitar (and his brother’s skull with an errant branch), the Australian outback might even be Memphis, and Samson might simply be in search of its Sun Records—an aggression-releasing oasis amid a stagnant landscape. But even the fiercest of mirages glitch their observers back into reality eventually, and just as Thornton’s denouement suggests protective isolation, if not exactly salvation, for Samson and Delilah, it sharply releases its audience with the lingering pulse of the film’s steady, lotophagous rhythms.