Based on the true story of an Indigenous Australian man, Sam Kelly, who was arrested and tried for the murder of a white man in the 1920s, director Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country is meticulous in its examination of institutionalized racism, specifically how the dehumanization of Australia’s native population bred an environment of cyclical violence and mistrust. Throughout, Thornton’s use of Aboriginal non-professional actors in major roles lends an authenticity to his portrait of an oppressed people fighting to survive in a world that seems almost hell-bent on destroying them.
The film’s empathy is evident in the behaviors of its exploited characters, whose suspicion and fear of white people is practically ingrained in their DNA. Indeed, we get an unmistakable sense of what little faith Aboriginal people have in the law to protect or serve them based on the way Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris, whose weather-beaten face effortlessly conveys the depth of his character’s emotional pain) goes on the lam, and without hesitation, after shooting Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in self-defense. It’s a fundamental lack of faith that’s also evident in the haunting refusal of Sam’s wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), to testify against Harry for raping her.
Sweet Country opens in symbolically blunt fashion: on a close-up of a pot of boiling water being seasoned with black and white spices. The film, though, complicates what initially scans as an unsubtle inquiry into the racial divisions that people lived with in Australia’s Outback with depictions of other Aboriginal characters whose behaviors run counter to the more hagiographic portrayal of Sam and Lizzie as soft-spoken innocents. A trouble-making youngster, Philomac (Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), defies his master every chance he gets, and even picks Harry’s watch within seconds of the man’s death. And later, the Uncle Tom-like Archie (Gibson John) helps the posse that sets out to track Sam down, and in spite of being mistreated throughout their journey. Philomac and Archie stretch moral boundaries in ways that make them feel less like purely righteous yet helpless victims and more like fully fleshed-out characters discovering unscrupulous ways to save their own skins.
While Harry may be irredeemable, Sweet Country is intent on homing in on the various degrees of empathy that the other white characters exhibit toward Aboriginal people. Harry’s one-note villainy is countered by the more layered portrayals of a liberal preacher (Sam Neill) and a compassionate judge (Matt Day), both of whom step up to defend Sam and Lizzie when the time comes. Even the leader (Bryan Brown) of the posse that chases after Sam is eventually forced to reckon with the ramifications of his initial impulse toward vigilante justice. In conveying these men’s inner conflicts, Thornton hints at—and without resorting to painting a simplistic good-versus-evil canvas—the possibility of Aboriginal people being accepted in post-colonialist Australia.
But despite the pretense of justice and empathy—in the form of a fairly officiated trial—the filmmaker never leaves us in doubt about Sam’s fate, as the laws that are meant to protect Aboriginals are revealed to be illusory. Near Sweet Country’s finale, Neill’s preacher is seen building a church, but the structure scarcely feels like a beacon of hope. Made by white men, this supposed house of God will likely stand not as a place of repentance and newfound tolerance, but rather as a hypocritical construct behind which a history of violence and brutality toward Aboriginals can yet again be washed away without the inconvenience of amends or an admittance of guilt.