In the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s two acerbic westerns confronting the legacy of slavery in America ('Django Unchained', 'The Hateful Eight') comes a racially charged oater from down under. In 'Sweet Country', an Aboriginal farmhand, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), is loaned by a benevolent preacher-farmer, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), to his volatile neighbour, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), to help build a fence. Kelly is cooperating out of Christian charity, but March, a shellshocked alcoholic, considers the man and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber) as livestock to be exploited. When it all ends badly in a hail of gunfire, Kelly goes on the run into the outback, and an ageing sergeant, Fletcher (Bryan Brown), organises a posse to bring him in.
Australia has a special place in its heart for outlaws named Kelly. Ned Kelly, who robbed banks wearing a homemade suit of armour, is a revered folk hero, a point underlined in Sweet Country when a picture show comes to town to screen 1906’s 'The Story of the Kelly Gang' to a cheering mob. That same mob has little sympathy for the Indigenous Kelly, an irony that director Warwick Thornton ('Samson & Delilah') plays to the hilt. As in the great westerns, the landscape is a key player, with Brown’s dogged trooper braving heat, scorpions and hostile tribes to get his man, while Neill tags along like the film’s conscience, anxious that Kelly not be condemned by the colour of his skin. Chase movie becomes outdoor courtroom drama, and Thornton wrings from this fable of rough frontier justice a statement from the heart. Australia now has its 'High Noon'.