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Non-Review Review: Sweet Country

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

“What chance does this country have?” asks Sam Neill towards the climax of Sweet Country.

In the context of the scene, it isn’t entirely clear to whom the character is speaking. There is one other individual in the scene, but they are preoccupied at that moment and it’s not clear they are even within earshot when Neill’s character makes his grave assessment about the future of this young nation. However, outside the context of the scene, it is very apparent to whom Neill’s character is addressing his concerns. He is speaking directly to the audience through the medium of film.

Sweet Country is not a film that does subtlety or nuance. As Neill’s character offers this pointed question, he stumbles through the Australian wilderness, as if to suggest that he is lost. He stops just short of bluntly stating that he is lost, just like this country, the film demonstrating uncharacteristic faith in the audience’s narrative and thematic comprehension. Nevertheless, just in case the audience still doesn’t get it, Neill’s character asks this very profound question while wandering in the direction of the tail end of a rainbow set against a stormy sky.

“What chance does this country have?” the character wonders. The audience doesn’t feel the need to articulate the obvious response, “Not much, if it produces films like this.”

Sweet Country has an has an interesting premise. It is very much a postcolonial western, which seems timely and relevant. The western has proven a surprisingly resilient genre in recent years, especially as a vehicle to explore national anxieties; think of The Hateful EightThe RevenantBone Tomahawk. In fact, this year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival opened with Black ’47. So there is a lot to be said for the use of the genre to excavate historical injustice and deconstruct foundational myths.

Sweet Country very much positions itself as an addition to the ever-expanding canon of postcolonial westerns. The focusing on Sam Kelly, an aboriginal farmer who murders a white settler in Australia. Understanding instinctively that he will find no justice for his actions, Sam sets out across the country with his wife. Inevitably, he finds himself pursued by a band of white settlers with varied and conflicting motivations; Fred Smith is a minister who wants to ensure Sam gets a fair hearing, Sergeant Fletcher wants a pound of flesh, Mick Kennedy is a fellow farmer.

There is a wealth of interesting material here, whether about how little the white settlers understand the landscape of the country that they have usurped or the notions of justice founded upon brutal oppression. However, the issue is not the story itself, but how Sweet Country chooses to tell that story. Sweet Country‘s storytelling is confusing; not in an abstract manner, but in a very literal way. Sweet Country combines the twin film school ethoses of “show don’t tell” and “more is more” to create a disjointed and over-explained piece of cinema.

Unwilling to trust its actors or dialogue to convey subtext or character, Sweet Country repeatedly cuts away from the scene to offer flashbacks and flashforwards to contextualise what is happening. It is not a bad idea of itself, if hardly original. The issue lies in the application. Every possible ambiguity or detail receives a series of quick flashbacks designed to offer the audience some sense of context for what they are seeing outside of this particular moment in time.

There is potentially something interesting in this narrative conceit. In particular, it seems to suggest a contrast between how the Aborigine people perceive time and the logical linear forward-moving structure that the white settlers have imposed upon it. Indeed, perhaps the most interesting and subtle piece of symbolism in Sweet Country is the watch stolen from a dead body by a young child of an Aborigine mother and a white settler father. The watch comes to represent the order which the settlers have imposed upon time within Australia.

Like all colonial powers, the white settlers have decided that the future of Australia belong to them. In furtherance of this end, they have decided that the country is to exist without a clear and discernible past. Repeatedly, the film emphasises how little the white settlers understand the country’s geography or history. The watch comes to literalise this idea, suggesting the new linear time that the settlers have imposed upon the more ethereal “dreamtime” understood by the native inhabitants.

However, Sweet Country never quite articulates this intriguing idea, instead offering pointless and superfluous flashback sequences that serve to elaborate on character and plot details that are self-evident to any audience member paying any attention to the characters or the script. This is perhaps most obvious with the murder victim whose death spurs the rest of the narrative. Harry March is introduced as a war veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The audience is then subjected to repeated flashbacks of Harry March suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The film continues in this vein. Shortly after he is introduced, Sergeant Fletcher shares an awkward meaningful glance with the bartender, the only prominent white female character; something is awkward between them. Rather than leaving any ambiguity about Sergeant Fletcher’s relationship to this woman and her teenage daughter, the scene quickly cuts to the two of them lying in bed together. Similarly, a young child is accused of stealing watermelon, only for Sweet Country to immediately flash back to that character eating watermelon.

This is all clumsy visual exposition, based on the idea that such exposition is somehow more tolerable when it is shown as compared to when it is told. It is an excellent illustration of how many filmmaking rules should not be taken as absolute, how there is an element of nuance and skill to storytelling beyond the application of truisms. Sweet Country over-explains almost every aspect of its narrative, it just does so through frustrating visual exposition rather than clunky dialogue. Given the disruption that this causes to the flow of the film, showing seems a worse choice than telling.

These flashbacks underscore the biggest issue with Sweet Country, which is the movie’s complete contempt for its audience’s ability to understand basic storytelling. The movie’s attention span seldom seems extends beyond three minutes; a scene in which an Aborigine cleverly traps a desert scorpion is immediately followed by a scene in which the white characters are stung by an identical scorpion, as if the movie is shouting “SYMBOLISM!” at the top of its lungs. (Just in case the audience doesn’t understand that the white settlers don’t understand Australia.)

At one point in the film, unprompted, Sergeant Fletcher reflects, “This is one sweet country.” He stops just short of turning to the camera and winking. Because this is the level on which Sweet Country operates. It is a movie that treats familiar observations as profound insights, and very much invested in its own intelligence and observations, grasping for a profundity that it never quite earns. The result is a deeply frustrating piece of cinema, one that compounds its flaws by embracing them as virtues.

Given the film’s short attention span, the length of Sweet Country is unforgivable. Owing to its short attention span, Sweet Country seems to transition between being half-a-dozen movies over its runtime, never developing or exploring any of those ideas in any depth before moving on to the next. At one point, when it looks like the movie might be resolving itself, the lead character makes a largely inexplicable decision that does nothing but extend the plot another twenty minutes and suddenly shifts the genre into something much weightier than the film can meaningfully support.

Sweet Country leaves a bitter taste.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

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