Wednesday 26 December 2018

Sweet Country (2018) - Movie Review doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to dealing with non-whites. Our country is responsible for some of the worst human rights violations in the Western world, both past and present, and nowhere is that more evident than in the historical treatment of Aboriginal Australians. The people we classified as native fauna long before we ever deemed them human, with our predecessors doing their damnedest to breed them out of existence to try and erase any evidence that we weren’t the first people to inhabit this land. This open sore in our history, one that most seem determined to ignore into absolution, ends up serving as a brilliant backdrop for this Aussie take on the Western cinematic genre.

Old Hollywood Westerns, the kind that basically turned the format into the national genre in the U.S., have a lot of obvious signifiers: Dust-covered scenery, drinking holes and saloons, sheriffs chasing after outlaws, not to mention the quick-fire use of weaponry. But most of all, at its core, it’s a symbol of a morally simplistic time, one where ‘eye for an eye’ still held some credibility as a way to end problems. And that approach to the good and the bad sits at the centre of this story of an Aboriginal farmhand who goes on the run after shooting down a white man.

As captured by director/DOP Warwick Thornton, we are presented with an eternally sombre depiction of the many forms of persecution these people went through, from the ‘half-castes’ that were meant to leave their cultural roots behind and assimilate into white society to the physical abuse they suffered at the hands of their… handlers, let’s say.

It’s a showing of old-school frontier justice that, while actually including due process as part of its narrative, highlights why that sense of right and wrong exists in this setting: Because for some, it’s the closest they can get to actual retribution. When confronted with a crazed man knocking down his door and pointing a gun at him and his wife, farmhand Sam acted in self-defence. But since he lives while Aboriginal, with the white neighbours calling for his execution long before the trial even starts, he’d be lucky to have anyone else see it in those terms.

But more so than anything to do with then-contemporary perspectives on justice, the bigger theme that peeks through the writing is that of masculinity, itself another long-time staple of the Western genre. The hyper-masculine cowboy with a finger constantly poised over his six-shooter is the quintessential Western hero. It is also an archetype that, over the last several years, has gone through some heavy postmodern revision, to the point where even perennial Western stars like Clint Eastwood deconstructed the character and revealed just how out-of-step it is in the modern era.

And this film follows in that tradition, bringing up questions of what separates the men from the boys, using the cultural differences between colonial and Aboriginal societies to show how not-cut-and-dry the whole idea is. The worth of a man is measured by his boots, by his property, by his willingness to take what he feels is his, or by his presumed knowledge that a blackfella has no place in his company, regardless of what anyone else has to say. I mean, yeah, they glorify outlaws like Ned Kelly, but the only good outlaw is a white outlaw in their eyes. Nothing hypocritical about that at all(!)

This is not a pleasant sit, but then again, nothing about this is meant to be. It’s a harrowing, often confronting look at Australian history, using the tropes of a genre that Australians arguably invented (The Story Of The Kelly Gang, the first feature-length film in the world, plays a key role in one of the film’s most poignant moments) to highlight an entirely different kind of Wild West. One where smallpox blankets look like a merciful option compared to what the First Peoples of this country had to endure.

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