Sundance Film Festival review: ‘Sweet Country’

I missed “Sweet Country” at TIFF, but had the chance to review it for The Film Stage during its presentation at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

At the very end of Sweet Country, director Warwick Thornton’s stunning, somber outback western, an emotionally devastated cattle rancher played by the great Sam Neill offers two questions to the clouds: “What chance have we got? What chance has this country got?” It’s the sorrowful capper to a powerfully upsetting film. And it’s entirely fitting. Sweet Country is many things — a stark western, a gripping chase story, a tale of slavery and self-defense, and a searing drama in which the stakes are horrifically high.

Set in Australia’s Northern Territory in the late 1920s, the film is anchored by Hamilton Morris, a non-professional actor who gives a simple, tremendously engaging performance. Morris plays Sam Kelly, an aboriginal stockman who works for Neill’s Fred Smith. The latter is a vocal Christian and one of the few onscreen whites who does not openly discriminate. Thus he is the opposite of Harry March (Ewen Leslie). A cruel war veteran and drunk, March is in need of helping hands. Smith makes the mistake of sending Sam and his wife, Lizzie (Natassia Gorey-Furber), to work for March, and the effects for all concerned are seismic. (A nightmarish scene of March assaulting Lizzie in a pitch-dark room is particularly effective.)

Once work is done, Sam is forced to kill March in self-defense. Doing so likely saves his life, Lizzie’s, and that of a young aboriginal boy named Philomac (Tremayne Doolan). But Sam has a keen understanding of his place in Australian society. He and Lizzie are voiceless, and their lives expendable. Hot on their trail is Sergeant Fletcher (big-screen vet Bryan Brown), a merciless authority figure intent on finding the killer. He is the leader of a motley posse that also includes Smith — a scene in which Neill poorly sings a Christian song around the campfire provides the only notable laughs — and an Aboriginal tracker named Archie. The latter is one of Sweet Country’s most interesting figures. Archie knows his role, yet also offers one of the film’s standout lines: “It’s not my country. My country’s far away.”

Indigenous Australians, like Sam and Archie, are referred to here as “blackfellas,” and they are treated with little more than contempt. This makes the makeshift trial of Sam particularly fascinating. And the presence of aboriginal voices makes Sweet Country a more profound and memorable western than, say, John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. Some of Country’s most sadly insightful scenes feature Sam and Lizzie alone around the campfire, remarking on the “troubles” that are coming.

What Sweet Country lacks in surprises is more than compensated for with emotional power and haunting images. The outback has rarely looked so harsh and unforgiving. Australian director Warwick Thornton, whose debut feature Samson and Delilah earned the Caméra d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, achieves something rather noteworthy here. He has created a film set in eerie, wide-open spaces that also feels utterly claustrophobic. There is nowhere for Sam and Lizzie to hide, and no place that feels the least bit welcoming.

Never is this truer than during the film’s final moments. And while the conclusion feels a bit predictable, it is indeed potent. As Neill cries out in sadness, it is hard not to feel overcome by Sweet Country’s grim strength. Thornton establishes himself as a director to watch, and with fine performances from Neill, Brown, Gorey-Furber, and, especially, Hamilton Morris, also reveals an ability to make an epic tale feel deeply personal.

Sweet Country screened at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released this spring.

Review: ‘Meru’ brings up-close terrifying view of mountain climbing

Meru Expedition, Garwhal, India

“Meru” is an interesting if occasionally pedestrian documentary. I gave it three stars in my Buffalo News review.

Over the next few weeks, much will be written about “Everest,” the star-heavy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin) film about the tragic 1996 Mount Everest climb that formed the basis of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”

Early reviews have been strong – the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival – but “Everest” has some competition in the white-knuckle climbing derby.

The documentary “Meru” is an involving, powerful film that brings the viewer as close to the feeling of climbing as any piece of cinema could. Directed by husband-and-wife filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, “Meru” took home the documentary Audience Award at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and should prove one of 2015’s most popular nonfiction entries.

While it’s an exhausting effort that culminates in a rather anticlimactic final stretch, “Meru” is a visual stunner that smartly focuses on three fascinating individuals who rank among the planet’s most accomplished climbers.

One of these is co-director Jimmy Chin, a young mountain climbing star with an unusual past – his parents were immigrants from China – who also is a hugely talented photographer.

Chin’s mentor is one of the world’s most gifted and well-known climbers: Conrad Anker, the man who memorably discovered the body of George Mallory on Everest. He also is the survivor of an avalanche in Tibet that killed his climbing partner, Alex Lowe.

Chin calls Anker a “hero to young climbers,” such as the third member of the team, Renan Ozturk. A rising star, Ozturk is less experienced than his teammates but no less courageous.

All three have taken many of the world’s tallest and fiercest mountains. But Meru? This mountain in the Indian Himalayas is a different story. As Anker puts it, “Meru is the culmination of everything I’ve ever done,” a complex monster of nature that had thus far proven un-doable.

The “Shark’s Fin” route up Meru is the “in” for this trio, but as the film makes clear, any Meru route is “the test of the master climber,” says author Krakauer, who adds insightful commentary throughout the doc. The world’s greatest climbers “tried and failed,” he notes.

Krakauer explains that Anker “first tried the mountain on 2003 and got his a– kicked.” This is perhaps why he seems the most full-on dedicated to the quest. A family man who lives in scenic Montana, Anker knows his chance to take Meru must happen soon.

The trio’s first ascent starts disastrously, and this is the film’s most compelling section. Stuck in a blinding snowstorm for four days, the team lost half its food with 90 percent of the mountain still to go.

Ozturk was ready to give up the climb, but Chin and Anker focused on continuing. (I’m with Ozturk.) The worse the storm gets, the harder the decision of what to do next. As Anker puts it, “What if we push on? Should we push on?”

With severe cases of frostbite and trench foot, the answer is “no.” Interestingly, however, one of the team faces his greatest physical (and emotional) setback years after the first ascent.

It is no spoiler to say the trio eventually return to Meru, and by this point, the film has lost some of its earlier verve, and much of its inherent drama. Yet there is satisfaction in seeing Anker, Chin and Ozturk return to the Shark’s Fin.

Through it all, the documentary features breathless action and awe-inducing imagery, while at the same time asking important and probing questions about the whys of mountain climbing. Is it worth it? What if life hangs in the balance? And what makes one try again and again?

As Ozturk states near the film’s end, “It was worth possibly dying for.” Whether or not the viewer agrees, “Meru” makes for a unique viewing experience.