FILM Tick­ing to a Dif­fer­ent Clock

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Shane Danielsen on War­wick Thorn­ton’s ‘Sweet Coun­try’

We make West­erns

for the same rea­son the Inuit make igloos: be­cause the land­scape dis­poses us to. The im­mense sky, the rust-coloured earth, the vast, bar­ren spa­ces of our in­te­rior … how could Aus­tralian film­mak­ers not feel com­pelled to use th­ese? Hol­ly­wood claims the genre as its own, as dis­tinctly Amer­i­can as jazz and school shoot­ings, but his­tory ar­gues oth­er­wise: the first Aus­tralian fea­ture film – the ear­li­est fea­ture-length nar­ra­tive film in the world, in fact – was Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, made in 1906. (And two years be­fore that came a short, Bushrang­ing in North Queens­land, made by the Sal­va­tion Army’s Mel­bourne-based Lime­light Depart­ment. Which, im­prob­a­bly enough, was one of the first ded­i­cated film stu­dios on the planet.) In re­cent decades the genre has fallen from favour, yet cer­tain film­mak­ers con­tinue to try their hand, in part drawn to the breadth of can­vas it af­fords, and in­trigued by its po­ten­tial for sub­ver­sion and com­plex­ity. Once boast­ing a sim­plis­tic, black-hat-bad moral clar­ity, the post-re­vi­sion­ist Western is an­other beast al­to­gether – an en­gine of dis­rup­tion, ca­pa­ble of in­ter­ro­gat­ing his­tor­i­cal no­tions of racial, so­cial and eco­nomic in­jus­tice. Less Zane Grey, in other words, and more Cor­mac McCarthy. Now War­wick Thorn­ton has thrown his hat into the ring, with Sweet Coun­try, his first the­atri­cal fea­ture since Sam­son and Delilah, the de­served win­ner of the Caméra d’Or for best first fea­ture at the 2009 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. That film was a small mas­ter­piece, sly and dogged, dis­arm­ingly big hearted; this one, by con­trast, is merely good. The short­fall can be at­trib­uted in large part to its script, which iron­i­cally lacks pre­cisely those qual­i­ties – nu­ance and am­bi­gu­ity – most in­trin­sic to its maker’s style. It’s 1929, the Northern Ter­ri­tory. Into a ragged, barely co­her­ent com­mu­nity (and the film is very good at sug­gest­ing the ten­u­ous sta­tus of a newly fed­er­ated

Aus­tralia, the neb­u­lous bound­aries di­vid­ing tra­di­tional lands, cat­tle sta­tions, small­hold­ings and towns) ar­rives a new­comer: Harry March (Ewen Les­lie). A war veteran, still shell-shocked by his ex­pe­ri­ence in the trenches, Harry has pur­chased a farm. But its fields lie fal­low, and hav­ing no “black­stock” of his own he’s obliged to bor­row some workers from neigh­bour­ing prop­er­ties (played uni­formly well by non-pros Hamil­ton Mor­ris, Natas­sia Gorey-Furber and Gib­son John). Al­most from the sec­ond Harry ap­pears, he’s a threat – hurl­ing abuse at the “lazy” farmhands, leer­ing at the women. A com­pe­tent ac­tor, Les­lie is given noth­ing to work with here: he’s one-note Bad, and as such might as well be twirling a car­toon­ish mous­tache. In­deed, so thor­oughly beastly and un­hinged is Harry that he fails to ad­vance the nar­ra­tive in any mean­ing­ful fash­ion, as there is never any real doubt how far he will go or what he’s ca­pa­ble of. And so his ac­tions – which, yes, in­clude rape, and, no, that’s hardly a spoiler – are tinged with a kind of weary in­evitabil­ity. Of course he beats his workers. Of course he at­tacks that girl. What else do we ex­pect? Given the limited terms by which he’s been de­fined, it would be a twist wor­thy of M. Night Shya­malan if he dis­played so much as a flicker of self-knowl­edge or re­morse. Ev­ery­one is the hero of their own story. This tru­ism, so rarely re­mem­bered in daily life, is the first prin­ci­ple of writ­ing a cred­i­ble char­ac­ter: apart from a hand­ful of dam­aged so­ciopaths, found mostly in talk ra­dio and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine any­one ris­ing in the morn­ing and think­ing, How can I be ut­terly mon­strous to­day? Yet it’s hard to pic­ture Harry think­ing any­thing much at all, be­cause he doesn’t ap­pear to want or even need any­thing in par­tic­u­lar. His land has to be worked, al­though he’s not es­pe­cially in­vested in the re­sult; you never for a in­stant get the sense he’s go­ing to be an ex­em­plary or even an ad­e­quate farmer. Yet nor is he quite sham­bling or ab­ject enough to be the hope­less drunk at which his be­hav­iour oc­ca­sion­ally feints. He’s sim­ply what­ever the script re­quires him to be at any given mo­ment, a void of pure util­ity. This may, of course, be a con­se­quence of the film­maker’s world view; Thorn­ton might con­sider most white­fel­las (of that pe­riod, at least) to be ut­ter bas­tards. But if so, this con­sti­tutes a fail­ure of dis­sent as much as of imag­i­na­tion. To refuse to as­cribe com­plex­ity to the op­pres­sor is to ame­lio­rate the evil of his ac­tions, be­cause it de­nies the pos­si­bil­ity of a moral con­science that the op­pres­sor chooses, for his own pur­poses, to ig­nore. Set against him, mean­while, is Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a neigh­bour­ing landowner and a fig­ure of al­most saintly rec­ti­tude. Fred lends Harry the In­dige­nous workers Sam Kelly (Mor­ris) and his wife, Lizzie (Gorey-Furber), whom Harry pro­ceeds to ex­ploit and de­base. When they rise up against him (there’s a sub­plot in­volv­ing the half-caste son of an­other neigh­bour), Sam and Lizzie are obliged to flee, inspiring pur­suit from a hard-bit­ten lo­cal sergeant (Bryan Brown) and nudg­ing the story to­wards some­thing re­sem­bling ac­tion. The lim­its of the cou­ple’s choices at least have a his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tion: not only is the story based on a re­al­life case, but as Sam will later, flatly, tell a mag­is­trate, “I killed a white­fella.” And then as now, there’s no com­ing back from that. A more am­bi­tious screen­play might have paused to ex­am­ine (or at least hint at) how Fred’s kindly patronage is it­self merely an­other form of own­er­ship, al­beit one with teeth bared in a smile in­stead of a snarl. But no shadow is al­lowed to in­trude upon his sunny in­tegrity. We’re firmly in the realm of white and black hats here, and there’s never a mo­ment’s doubt as to which sits atop Neill’s still-hand­some bonce. Quite apart from all this are the not-in­con­sid­er­able sen­sory re­wards of Thorn­ton’s film­mak­ing. He’s an un­com­monly pa­tient sto­ry­teller, con­tent to let scenes play out and to al­low the viewer to find their own way into what they’re watch­ing. At times, you feel part of a process, a more-or-less equal part­ner in de­ci­pher­ing and or­der­ing the nar­ra­tive; at other times, you’re out­side it, rav­ished by light and colour. Watch­ing him work, you re­alise how as­ton­ish­ingly few Aus­tralian di­rec­tors demon­strate any deep or abid­ing plea­sure in their cho­sen medium. How few seem ac­tively en­er­gised by the act of im­age-mak­ing. Cate Short­land, a jagged sen­su­al­ist, is one; Ge­orge Miller, devoted to ve­loc­ity and force, is an­other. But for the most part, a work­man­like pro­fi­ciency reigns, overly in­debted to TV aes­thet­ics and flat so­cial re­al­ism. In this sense, at least, Aus­tralia re­mains very much a Bri­tish colony. The Western comes with its own set of con­ven­tions, and a good deal of this film’s plea­sure re­sides in watch­ing Thorn­ton qui­etly, coolly set about un­der­min­ing them. His treat­ment of the chase is lin­ear, rem­i­nis­cent of An­thony Mann’s great 1953 oater The Naked Spur, but else­where he takes sat­is­fac­tion in dash­ing our ex­pec­ta­tions. The law­man be­comes the an­tag­o­nist. The cli­mac­tic show­down never re­ally hap­pens. But for a Johnny Cash song over the clos­ing cred­its (“There’ll Be Peace in the Val­ley”, which feels ever-so-slightly too ironic for its own good), he omits any mu­si­cal score. Work­ing with ed­i­tor Nick Mey­ers, Thorn­ton de­vises some au­da­cious cut­ting: dart­ing back­wards and for­wards in time to show the con­se­quences or the ori­gins of ac­tions – or

The Western comes with its own set of con­ven­tions, and a good deal of this film’s plea­sure re­sides in watch­ing Thorn­ton qui­etly, coolly set about un­der­min­ing them.

Maybe it ticks to a dif­fer­ent clock, of­fers up a whole other, sep­a­rate sense of on­screen time.

nee­dle-skip­ping side­ways to more finely de­tail the cir­cum­stances of some pe­riph­eral char­ac­ter. All in sin­gle shots, some ar­rest­ingly brief. Ini­tially cryptic, this frag­men­tary tech­nique be­comes the film’s most note­wor­thy fea­ture: ex­pand­ing out­wards from the pri­mary drama to chron­i­cle the fate of an en­tire com­mu­nity, poi­soned by racism, vi­o­lence and mis­trust. Even so, once Sam and Lizzie be­gin their jour­ney, you can al­most sense Thorn­ton’s re­lief at hav­ing dis­pensed with the plot me­chan­ics that brought them there. I sus­pect that, in his heart of hearts, Thorn­ton’s not truly a nar­ra­tive film­maker at all – an im­pres­sion first in­spired by his 2013 ghost story project, The Dark­side. His real passion, it seems, is for mise en scène – for com­pos­ing im­ages (he trained as a cin­e­matog­ra­pher), work­ing with nat­u­ral light, and fram­ing and block­ing. Not purely for its own ends – not just to make pretty pic­tures – but, rather, to com­mu­ni­cate speci­fici­ties of place and mood, and the cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence of his peo­ple. Watch­ing Sweet Coun­try the first time, at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, I found my­self oc­ca­sion­ally be­com­ing im­pa­tient with its pac­ing. There seemed a lot of dead air, of un­nec­es­sary sta­sis. And then I re­mem­bered I felt much the same about Sam­son and Delilah, a film I adored – and, come to think of it, about Ca­tri­ona McKen­zie’s Satel­lite Boy, and even Ivan Sen’s Toome­lah. Only later did it oc­cur to me that the prob­lem, rather than ly­ing with th­ese films, might in fact be my own: I was ex­pect­ing th­ese texts to con­form to my ex­pec­ta­tions, in­stead of meet­ing them on their own par­tic­u­lar terms. Per­haps, I thought, this is what a truly In­dige­nous Aus­tralian cin­ema might look like. Maybe this is how such a thing might play: the at­ten­u­ated pac­ing, the space be­tween lines, the sense of stalled ac­tion. Maybe it ticks to a dif­fer­ent clock, of­fers up a whole other, sep­a­rate sense of on­screen time. You could cer­tainly take a pass at its edit­ing here – could, for a start, com­fort­ably trim the tops and tails of many if not most shots – and what would emerge would be a leaner, more con­cise, more con­ven­tional film. But it also wouldn’t be true to its cul­ture, and it wouldn’t be War­wick Thorn­ton’s.

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