Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sundance with Abe: Sweet Country

I’m thrilled to be attending and covering the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah for the fifth time. I’m seeing as many movies as I can each day and will post reviews of each as I can.

Sweet Country
Directed by Warwick Thornton

In so many societies, there is a truly unfortunate tendency for the superiority of the white race. Even when countries desegregate and break down whatever legal impediments to equality exist, there often remains a sense that even a visiting foreigner who is white is worth more than a local who is not. When law and order aren’t the rule of the land, justice may be served by mob mentality, vilifying someone seen as the “other” even if all evidence points to their innocence, with no greater authority other than morality to punish those inspired by vicious and hateful desires.

In the Australian outback in 1929, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) lives a simple but pleasant life working the land of a preacher (Sam Neill). Sam’s livelihood is put in jeopardy when he kills a visiting rabble-rouser in defense of his family, and his identity as an Aboriginal man forces him to go on the run with his wife for fear of retribution from those who see him merely as a lesser native who has deigned to kill a white man. The law is after him, determined to give him a trial and let him speak on behalf of his innocence, but the angry men with guns are far less willing to consider that possibility.

This film is in many ways a western, but it’s one that saves its gunshots for just when they’re necessary, instead exploring the vast desert of the Australian outback and all of its bleak, uninhabited scope. It’s a fitting setting in which Sam can live without fear of persecution due to his relationship with a kind, forward-thinking preacher who sees him just as a helpful and productive human being, and then have his world uprooted when someone rides on in from the next town or village to start a fight just because he can.

This Australian film comes from indigenous Australian director Warwick Thornton and Aboriginal writers Steven McGregor and David Tranter, offering this story of a good man caught in a very bad situation of which he has very little control from his own perspective thanks to their own modern-day experiences. Actors Neill and Bryan Brown, playing an unusually friendly and pure-hearted emblem of law enforcement, give strong performances as the only white men truly on the side of the accused, portrayed by Morris in an understated and melancholy turn. This film has a resonant message but its actual execution takes a cue from slower, deeply expository westerns.


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