It's long been a reassuring pleasure to watch Sam Neill at work on screen, and the filmmaker Warwick Thornton knows this - which may be why his bracing new Western Sweet Country makes such sparing use of the actor. Neill is there in the opening minutes, certainly: his Fred Smith is, if not a preacher, then very definitely a Godly man, perhaps a little complacent with it, prone to nodding off on the porch of his farmhouse, Bible in hand, a dozy sentinel in the borderlands between light and dark. One afternoon, Smith is woken from his slumbers by Harry (Ewen Leslie), a new neighbour assigned some kind of official status after returning from the front, seeking to borrow the services of Fred's Indigenous right-hand man Sam (Hamilton Morris). Where Fred insists that all men are equals in God's eyes, Harry regards Sam no better than a slave, snarling at him, assigning him punishing work, and leering at the wife and young niece his new recruit has brought along with him; when he finally lays his hands on the former, it's with a grunted "I wanted the other one, but you'll do." Fifteen minutes into Sweet Country, and already we're missing Neill, with his aura of gentle decency; when he returns, it's as part of a posse riding out from so-called civilisation, from which Sam has fled after putting a bullet through Harry's neck.
It's been almost ten years since Thornton's debut feature Samson & Delilah came along like a winding punch to the gut - too long, by anyone's reckoning, although one suspects his absence from our screens has something to do with the kinds of stories he wants to tell, which aren't entirely flattering about certain aspects of his country's history. (He would presumably feel some kinship with those British filmmakers presently suffering because they don't want to make Downtonesque period dramas dressing up the uglinesses of Empire.) His new film is a bleak and violent tale, but it ultimately has far more to communicate about that violence - how it gets wielded, who it's wielded upon, and its immediate and lasting effects - than, as an example, this weekend's other major arthouse release. Sweet Country opens with an extended overhead shot of a pot of coffee on the boil: as a scuffle takes place off-camera, you fear it might come to be tossed in some poor sod's face, as screen gangsters used to, but instead it serves to set up one major theme - Australia as melting pot, heated, volatile - and the manner in which this narrative seems to simmer, threatening to boil over, and occasionally erupting before our alarmed and horrified eyes.
The posse, after all, are riding out into territory their people have technically claimed as their own, but which, as more than one character points out, they simply do not know. It's scant surprise, then, when they find themselves up against the tribesmen thereabouts, as red as the rocks, who don't wear the hats and boots the gentrified Sam does; nor indeed that they should be up against Sam himself, exerting a vaguely mystical control over this environment: how else to explain how the scorpion we see him trapping in one scene winds up inside one of his pursuers' boots in the next? Thornton and co-cinematographer Dylan River ensure this Outback gets harsher and harsher with each extraordinary frame that passes: the initial snapshot of humdrum station life gives way to the scant vegetation of the bush, then a vast, screen-filling salt flat that might have set the von Stroheim of Greed to salivating. Venturing way beyond their usual, comfortable jurisdiction, the party dwindles to one: Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who seems to take this blackfella's escape as both a personal slight, and a test of his own manhood. That movement might suggest a straightforward revenge trajectory, but Sweet Country never quite moves in the directions you expect it to; there are reasons you feel it coming to cover such a lot of ground.
Having effectively hung Fletcher out to dry as a walking/staggering grudge, the second half reels him back, tail between his legs, for a kangaroo-court finale composed of remarkably attentive close-ups: here, we're shown with stark clarity the divisions running through Australian society, and the deep scars these divisions have left behind. This final act is set up by an image that subverts the oft-quoted doorway shot from The Searchers in a way I've never seen before: for the white man striding out into uncertain territory, Thornton subs in two chastened natives, sitting in the dust, looking in at us. Like Dee Rees's recent Mudbound, this is a Western of new angles and perspectives, most apparent in the curious editing choice to sporadically drop in a flash or flicker of a later scene. This formal tic seems jarring at first, but over the course of the movie, it makes sense: it's a little Nic Roeg circa Walkabout, especially when a dehydrated Fletcher visualises the barmaid waiting for him back home, but it feels more specifically aboriginal in this application - an inkling or intuition of things, good and terrible, to come. We end up watching a much smaller, sorrier story than it first appears - a tale preordained, with only one possible outcome - but every last one of its frames sends consequences and repercussions rippling outwards, to be felt as fully and as devastatingly in 2018 as they would have been a century ago.
Sweet Country is now playing in selected cinemas.