SWEET COUNTRY: SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE FLESH AND THE PITH

Scan 31

First came the upward sweep of Samson & Delilah (2009) into the annals of Australian mythology, one of the few departures from the colonial trend of Australian storytelling. Following in those steps, Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) aspires of a similar folklore, but doesn’t reach the mark.

 

Sweet Country is the story of a hunted-man, Sam Kelly, on his flight from a false murder charge through the outback. The film attempts to carve into the cultural complexities of 1929 frontier Australia. Having dug out an important niche in the oft colonially-slanted perspectives of Australian storytelling, Thornton’s work dons an Indigenous Australian perspective on Country. This in mind, the breadth and ambition of Sweet Country fails to meet the task it sets for itself – to unpack the complex and long woven prejudices of culture between colonial and indigenous Australians. Taking on this challenge in any sense, and falling short of it, is, in itself, an important creative move. That said, these explorations in Sweet Country backslide into damaging representations that draw the barrel of scrutiny and criticism down to the very feet of the piece.

 

The mythological grandeur of Sam Kelly’s story – a pursuit through the bush, rife with romance, violence and fragile masculine egos – falls in the no mans land between mythos and between realism. Flat and inconsistent characters fail to carry through the prejudices of the context in a believable way, instead remaining half-cooked archetypes. These include the silent tracker man, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), soft-spoken and wise. The religious man, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), who scrutinizes and perceives all wronging, but fails to intercede. The Lawman, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), whose prejudices are a matter of personal ego, making him all the more dangerous. And, most fractured and flat of them all, the silent woman, Lizzie, who does not speak of her abuse and does not show independence of any kind during the film. These characters – who sit in a fascinating backdrop of colonial Australia – fall blandly short of the nuance of their very context. In this complex landscape or clashing cultural tides, they are flat and unconvincing. There are moments in the film when we hope – beg – for characters to speak up, or show some level of motivation for self-preservation, but instead there is a stagnancy. Yet this stagnancy does not feel calculated, but instead a product of poor writing, and the silted direction of the actors’ performances.

 

That said, there is a stylistic flair that lends this film backbone in places where narrative momentum and structure are lacking. Without music, the soundscape emulates the emptiness and danger of landscapes unmastered, yet shows the relative peace afforded in those same spaces to those who are familiar with the country. The layered images of Lizzie, Sam & the Sergeant moving horizontally across an at once close-and-distant landscape provide a sense of theatricality and sentient landscape that ‘channels’ the characters on their journey. Eucalypts, Ooraminna Station’s dry grassland surrounds, and the red earthen bluffs of the Simpson Desert seem to glide in layers between which the characters roll, unaware of their predetermined paths. The slowness of scenes, intercut with the ‘flash-forward’ glimpses build a sense of inevitability, yet, when these destinies land true, they don’t serve by way of conclusion but as a blockade to imagining the futures beyond characters. We are stuck in the 2D, cardboard present. Whilst the stylistic delivery of Thornton made this film more cohesive and quite immersive, this attempted weave of mythology arrives only as a half-delivered tragedy, weakening the film at points when it needs to be hitting the hardest.

 

Sweet Country continues the long-woven tapestry of Australian into realms lesser explored – those perspectives of the people of the First Nations. Our colonial perspective represent the outback as a place of hungry terror – a space that eats colonials and holds mystery and the unknown, as in Wake In Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), or Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). However, as Sweet Country explores, the landscape is equivalently a space of retreat, stasis and safety for non-colonials (Samson & Delilah, Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002)) and even sometimes outcast individuals as in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). The same stylistic notes as Samson & Delilah that lend insight into the remote reaches of landscape that are peripheral to our everyday existence, yet have been the structural tenants of modern Australian culture.

The style lends strength to a film that seeks to deliver an important and still resonant message of prejudice, and the self-feeding loop of illogical inequalities that continue to shape Australia’s society. I shy away from stating that ‘Sweet Country’ ‘flew too close to the sun’ of Australian political commentary, because of the importance of shifting the balance of perspectives we have on Country. Yet I left the cinema feeling dissatisfied with the story, which felt like tragedy endured to make a point, but instead delivering dry and reckless social criticism with no room for improvement. Fred Smith’s parting lines – ‘What hope does this country have?’ – leaves little wiggle room for development towards something better, and this film does not deliver a mythological lesson that is easily wielded. That said, the craft and steeped knowledge of the landscape in this film shows great promise for the future of new perspectives of Australian storytelling.

 

The Florida Project: No Pot of Gold at the end of the American Dream

Scan 12

“I wish that leprechaun was nice.”

This line is delivered by six-year-old Jancey ( Valeria Cotto) who, alongside her best friend in a Florida carpark, stares whistfully at a rainbow, wishing for promised gold. So runs most of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), the director’s first fetaure since the acclaimed Tangerine (2015). The Florida Project continues Baker’s thread of realism by impressing upon us the realities of both sex work and the worldwide vein of poverty.

The film’s focus is The Magic Castle, a motel-turned home for many low-socioeconomic tenants run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Crucially, The Magic Castle is in the heart of Disneyland’s tourist ‘belt’ where the long shadows of wealthy tourists and their Disney™ demands are cast onto the cyclically poor tenants of the region. Focusing on six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), The Florida Project maps their downward spiral towards destitution over one summer. Both the internal choices made by Halley (and Moonee), and the vicious loop of social and financial pressures speed their downwards slide.

Sean Baker is establishing a reputation for a hyper-realist, immersive style, as created in Tangerine by shooting close-hand on iPhones, a realism he further develops in The Florida Project. The child actors perform in a natural, rambling style, shouting lines over one another. Equally, the adults are constantly fighting to make themselves heard, and the natural delivery of lines makes the near mockumentary film highly evocative. Painting in hyper-realist strokes the settlement The Magic Castle, Baker produces an oppressive sense of wealth and weight in the area. The endless drone of helicopters and highway traffic to and from the area — visitors to the fabled Disneyland — press upon the motel from all sides, the financial and legal pressures of life made manifest.

The performances and nebulous-narrative style of The Florida Project was reminiscent of Gareth Edward’s earliest feature, Monsters (2010). Both wielded real locations and improvisational performances to create an immersive realism in their works. This realism lends both films an emotional and socio-political credibility that makes the plight of these characters more resonant and relatable. Importantly, The Florida Project does not express back-story for any character. Even for Willem Dafoe’s hard-done-by-nice-guy Bobby, we are given only the tidbits that come up in strained conversation, tangents that Dafoe’s character immediately shut down. Equally, his tenants do not discuss the past. The overall emphasis is on the now, on the next paycheck, the next week’s rent, that the journey to get to this point, not the choices or circumstances that led the characters to the motel. On these spiraling slopes to destitution, there is a terrifying (but unacknowledged or unwanted) relate-ability to the small-scale fetishizations of commodities these characters undergo daily. Purchases of fast foods, plastic toys, clothes, alcohol and more extravagant and seemingly excessive purchases — such as an Ipad — merely reflect the same processes most of us go through with or own paychecks, whether or not we make exerted efforts to counteract the cycle of blind consumption. We each are sucked into the brief high of a well-rounded paycheck and the lows between.

Funnily enough, these images conjure in us the general emotion that perhaps, given access, we might make ‘a better job’ of things. Watching Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Moonee (Prince) and Jancey (Cotto) running about the swampy highways of Florida, we see them eat endless begged-for ice cream, waffles drenched in syrup, soda cans and cheese pizza. All the while, they are lighting things on fire, smashing windows and screaming abuse at passers-by. These kids are little terrors, incredibly disrespectful and inconsiderate of their fellows, behavior we blame upon poor parenting. My fellow filmgoers were equally anxious about — of all things — the lack of vegetables that the kids were given access to, yet we could not deny the near inevitable slide of Halley into reliance on full-service sex work for money. Meanwhile, the children’s independence and resourcefulness in their post-apocalyptic (it seems) surrounds is to be admired. Halley’s hands-off approach to parenting is often wince-inducing, yet somehow Moonee still evokes sympathy and admiration for her fierce loyalty to her loved ones and her ‘screw the man’ attitude, a full circle of emotional alliance that Baker has strategically built into the film’s otherwise structurally lacking narrative.

Without stepping expressly into the ring to battle it out with (capital C) Capitalism, a debate too large and complex for me to begin here, I would argue that The Florida Project instead of mapping the future doom of USA citizens, instead sheds light on the already ongoing apocalypse of capitalism worldwide. These limbo spaces, such as The Magic Castle, Las Vegas’ underground homeless network or Kowloon Walled City, exist in pockets of every society, dells so deep that the likelihood of escape from them seems very low. These films most importantly do not focus on condemning characters for their choices, but with equal strokes of the palette, illustrate the battle between individual and system in trying to carve a life using a paddle pop stick.