Warwick Thornton's Aussie Western Sweet Country is a lyrical meditation on a significant but subtle turning point in his country's history: the moment where some white colonizers struggling in the outback turned against slavery, not necessarily out of moral outrage, but because they determined that the enslavement of indigenous black aboriginals was not a viable future for the country. Others, of course, would fight to the death to ensure the old order of things. As presented in Sweet Country, the attitudes and events leading up to the abolition of slavery in Australia play out as frighteningly similar to our own.
Told by an aboriginal director, the film does not revel in brutality, nor does it paint any one person as a hero or villain. Sam Neill plays Fred, a man of religion, who sees all men as equal but still exercises some authority over his indigenous friend Sam (Hamilton Morris). This ensemble drama has no traditional lead, but Sam is as close as we get -- it's his misfortune that sets off a series of fateful events for the other characters. Fred's white alcoholic ex-soldier neighbor, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), manipulates Sam and Sam's wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber), into going to his property to do some work on the place. Eventually, Sam must kill him in self-defense and escape with Lizzie into the outback. This prompts a posse to hunt Sam down.
That premise might suit a John Wayne movie, but Thornton's story does not glamorize frontier manliness. The film is overwhelmingly quiet, with long moments of stillness. Thornton delicately peels back all the layers of Aussie injustice, but what's most unnerving is that the story proves to be so universal.