Australia's latest exceptional outback western interrogates the atrocities of the country's colonial past.
January 25, 2021
Violence is never splashed across a cinema screen unthinkingly. Depicting physical force is always a choice, even in by-the-numbers action films where fists and bullets fly far more frequently than meaningful moments. Accordingly, when brutality and bloodshed arrives in a movie that peers back at Australia's colonial past, there's no doubting that the filmmakers responsible have considered what they're including, why, the message it conveys and the impact it'll have on the audience. High Ground is one such Aussie feature. This outback western joins a growing number of homegrown efforts, such as Sweet Country, The Nightingale and The Furnace, and it's just as exacting about its scenes of confrontation and carnage. All excellent films, they each ensure that watching atrocities committed by white Australians against First Nations people and people of colour isn't a passive act — because having a visceral and emotional reaction, facing the horrors of Aussie history and releasing the imprint such violence still leaves today is the only natural response.
High Ground's main forceful encounter occurs early, motivating everything that follows and proving impossible to forget. In 1919, ex-World War I sniper-turned-police officer Travis (Simon Baker, Breath) sets out across the area now known as Kakadu National Park, leading a law enforcement team on a routine expedition to track down runaway criminals. Travis is respectful of Arnhem Land's Indigenous residents; however, it doesn't take much — namely, the decisions of his less fair-minded colleagues — for the journey to end with slaughter. Twelve years later, in the 30s, Travis is still haunted by the incident. Thanks to one of High Ground's most important choices, it doesn't require any effort at all to understand why he feels the way he does, or why his eyes have taken on a sorrowful glint. The movie's viewers have witnessed the same awful events, with Aboriginal men, women and children who were enjoying a peaceful waterside gathering all suddenly and savagely killed, and a boy called Gutjuk (debutant Guruwuk Mununggurr) only managing to leave the scene alive due to Travis' intervention.
The bulk of the film takes place in its later time period, when Travis is enlisted by his superior Moran (Jack Thompson, Never Too Late) and ex-partner Eddy (Callan Mulvey, Shadow in the Cloud) to address the still-lingering aftermath of the massacre. One of the few survivors, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr, Lucky Miles), has been waging a campaign of revenge — and, despite the fact that Travis turned in his badge in disgust after his bosses covered up the incident, he's given the task of locating him. Baywara is also Gutjuk's uncle, which sparks a reunion between the ex-cop and the child he saved. Of course, the latter is now a young man (fellow first-timer Jacob Junior Nayinggul), has spent the past decade-plus at a local mission with the kindly Father Braddock (Ryan Corr, Hungry Ghosts) and his sister Claire (Caren Pistorius, Unhinged), and is as begrudging about the new expedition as Travis. He's also just as aware that a showdown looms between Australia's colonisers and its original inhabitants, and that whatever eventuates isn't likely to be peaceful.
Even when untainted by blood, the country's landscape has blazed with red, orange and ochre hues since long before European settlement — since the sun first started beating down upon it, undoubtedly — with those colours helping many an Aussie film bake heated feelings of fury and torment into their frames. Indeed, simmering anguish goes with the territory in High Ground. That's true of every movie that recognises that Australia was far from terra nullius when the First Fleet arrived, but there's no escaping the scorching mood that radiates here, as director Stephen Maxwell Johnson (Yolngu Boy) intends. Working with cinematographer Andrew Commis (Babyteeth) to bring screenwriter Chris Anastassiades' (The Kings of Mykonos) script to the screen, the filmmaker fills his first feature in two decades with picturesque yet also pulsating scenery. Peering down at eye-catching swathes of the Northern Territory, the nation's earthy beauty is striking and stunning, and so is the knowledge that it has been walked upon by Indigenous Australians for tens of thousands of years. And one goes with the other, as the movie's soundtrack also helps reinforce, layering the noises of birds and wildlife with songs by Yolngu singers such as Yothu Yindi's Witiyana Marika — who also appears in the film as Gutjuk's grandfather Dharrpa — and his son Yirrmal Marika.
Johnson has a history with Yothu Yindi, directing music videos for the group, including for its 1991 hit track 'Treaty'. He also grew up in the NT, and has ties with Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park's Yolngu and Bininj Aboriginal communities. And, he worked with the elder Marika and the late Dr M Yunupingu, also of Yothu Yindi, as the script for High Ground and the project in general evolved. It should come as no surprise, then, that the film stings with authenticity. It tells a fictional tale, but does so to illuminate inescapable truths. Everyone involved knows that they're interrogating a difficult but vital subject, and aims to get their audience thinking as long and hard as Johnson and his collaborators clearly have about the details, the violence, and the way the country's historic treatment of its First Peoples still echoes today.
In one of his rare homegrown roles of late, Baker belongs among High Ground's intensely contemplative talent. He's one of the film's executive producers as well, but he's ideal on-screen. That said, he's at his best when he's acting opposite the exceptional Nayinggul, who seems to live and breathe Gutjuk's pain and conflict with such soulfulness and sincerity that his performance appears near-effortless. Their pairing speaks volumes at every turn, too. They play men pushed together by circumstance, with one made to confront the ills that an entire nation would rather ignore and the other forced to help clean up an invading culture's unspeakable acts. That juxtaposition alone paints a potent picture, and a purposeful one — but that's this latest great Aussie film all over.