Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Stars: Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Callan Mulvey, Jack Thompson, Caren Pistorius, Ryan Corr, Aaron Pedersen, Sean Mununggurr, Witiyana Marika, Esmerelda Marimowa, Maximillian Johnson, Mark Garrawurra, Magnolia Maymuru, Guruwuk Mununggurr .
Fittingly released to cinemas in the week in which we celebrate the increasingly controversial Australia Day holiday, High Ground deals with important themes of vengeance, justice, racism, power, culture and tradition, the clash of cultures and questions about our national identity and our history steeped in blood.
Set in the Northern Territory in the years between the two world wars, this revisionist outback western looks at the consequences of colonialism and deals with our dark past, our troubled relationships and violent interaction with the aborigines. It clearly follows in the footsteps of other recent films like Sweet Country or The Nightingale, brutal dramas that looked at the violent colonial past and the horrible treatment that the aboriginals suffered.
The film opens in Arnhem Land in 1919. Travis (Simon Baker) is a former sniper who served in WWI. He now works with the colonial police forces. He is with a posse under the control of the trigger-happy and racist Eddy (Callan Muley), who is tracking a couple of aborigines who are wanted for having killed a cow belonging to a settler. This leads to the massacre of a group of aboriginals by a billabong. Travis is unable to stop the brutal massacre and feels guilty and sickened over what happened. There was one survivor – a young boy named Gutjuk – whom Travis takes to a small Christian mission and leaves him to be raised by the compassionate Claire (Caren Pistorius, from Unhinged, etc) and her brother Father Braddock (Ryan Corr), a priest. There he is given the name Tommy.
We then meet Travis a decade later. He has quit the police force in disgust at the coverup of the massacre and works as a bounty hunter and tracker. He is approached by his former boss District Inspector Moran (Jack Thompson) to track down a rogue aborigine known as Baywarra (Sean Mununggurr). Apparently Baywarra was seriously wounded during that fateful massacre but survived. He now seeks vengeance on the white population by attacking homesteads, killing the cattle and burning the properties to the ground. Travis is accompanied by the adolescent Tommy (played by newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul), who happens to be Baywarra’s nephew Gutjuk and is conflicted by his involvement in the mission. Travis hopes to be able to bring Baywarra in peacefully to end the conflict. But Moran and the duplicitous Eddy have another agenda in mind.
Gutjuk is initially unaware of Travis’ involvement in the slaughter that killed his family; similarly Travis is initially unaware of Tommy’s real name, and this brings a sense of tension to their mission.
High Ground is the sophomore feature from director Stephen Maxwell Johnson, who gave us the indigenous coming of age story Yolngu Boy in 2001, which drew upon the filmmaker’s own experiences. This is his first feature since then; he has mainly spent the past couple of decades working in television and helming music videos for bands like Yothu Yindi. Johnson wrote the script with his Yolgnu Boy collaborator Chris Anastassiades (who has mainly written for television). They deliver a story that, in their words, uses fiction to illustrate a bigger and deeper truth.
High Ground is quite confronting and violent at times, with a high body count. But the violence is never gratuitous, it serves a bigger purpose here.
The title itself has a nice double meaning – the high ground gives a sniper the tactical advantage where he can control the ground below him, but it also refers to having the high moral ground when tackling a controversial issue.
The characters are morally complex and flawed. Baker delivers a sympathetic performance as the cynical and taciturn Travis, who is the film’s moral compass. Newcomer Nayinggul is good as the conflicted Gutjuk and, despite never having acted before, has a natural screen presence. Muley is one-dimensional as the villainous Eddy, who previously served alongside Travis during the war. Thompson lends authority to his performance as Moran, a representative of the corrupt colonial powers. Aaron Pederson is cast against type as Walter, a mixed-race tracker, and while he brings a characteristic intensity to his performance he is largely wasted. Likewise, Corr is wasted in a small and thankless role.
High Ground is a handsomely mounted and visually stunning production. It has been filmed on location in Kakadu, and ravishingly shot in widescreen by cinematographer Andrew Commis (The Rocket, etc,) who captures the spectacular scenery of the outback setting. There are also some spectacular drone shots that provide us with a perspective of the broad open spaces of the outback. The natural beauty of the settings contrasts harshly with the brutality and ugliness of the story. And there is very little use of music in the film, but rather Johnson uses a soundscape comprised of natural sounds, which is effective in creating an atmosphere of foreboding.
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