Covering a violent chapter of colonial history, Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s Australian western excavates ugly truths beneath lush lensing.
There’s a hint of John Ford to “High Ground,” a sinewy, sun-baked faceoff between indigenous and invading armies in the Arnhem Land wilderness of Australia, though by now we probably need a better word than “western” for films that situate the tensions and tropes of Hollywood operas in their own distinct geographical context. Handsomely mounted and absorbing, even if its action never quite ascends from a canter to a gallop, Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s long-brewing sophomore feature arrives nearly two decades after 2001’s “Yolngu Boy,” and continues that film’s mission to elevate the stories and voices of the Aboriginal population in the country’s Northern Territory.
Given how “High Ground” fits into Australia’s ongoing cultural reckoning with its violent colonial legacy, this Berlinale premiere is guaranteed a high domestic profile — though its mostly classical genre adherence, plus the presence of Simon Baker as the most morally upright of the story’s white settlers, ensures it will play universally. (Sure enough, Samuel Goldwyn Films have already picked up U.S. distribution rights.) Chris Anastassiades’ script is evidently at pains to give its Aboriginal characters a greater share of its perspective than in certain past portrayals of this historical era, though it’s less bracingly revisionist than such films as Warwick Thornton’s “Sweet Country.”
The Northern Territory tourist board will certainly be pleased with a film that doesn’t dim the region’s ravishing natural beauty at any turn, even when its lavish greenery is sprayed with the blood of conflict. Johnson and cinematographer Andrew Commis (fresh from more intimately original work on Shannon Murphy’s upcoming “Babyteeth”) open the film on a vast, swirling shot around a towering rock formation in the thick of what is now the Kakadu National Park. Accompanied by a soundtrack of feverishly layered birdsong and insect hum — there’s no score, just nature’s bustling soundtrack — it may seem an almost blandly picturesque opening shot, thought it aptly foregrounds a landscape that will outlast the ensuing fights over it.
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A 1919-set prologue introduces Travis (Baker), an independent-minded policeman more sympathetic than most of colleagues to the rights of the Aboriginal population, led by tribe elder Dharrpa (real-life Yolngu ceremonial leader Witiyana Marika), with whom they tensely share the land. When a security operation overseen by Travis goes bloodily awry, leading to the massacre of most of Dharrpa’s tribe, orphaned child Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr) is taken into care by a local mission, while Travis leaves the force in protest at his superiors’ intent to cover up the atrocity.
After the lulling beauty of the opening minutes, the shootout sequence is genuinely jolting, shot and cut with its own kind of frank, relentless brutality: It’s effective, though not the last time “High Ground” will stage such a scene of horror in impassively bright, clear daylight. Needless to say, the white men can bury such a crime, but it won’t lie down: 12 years later, the region is rocked by a spate of vengeful attacks on settlers by much-feared Baywarra (Sean Mununggurr), a descendant of Dharrpa. When Travis, now a lone-wolf bounty hunter, is enlisted by his former police chief (Jack Thompson) to hunt down Baywarra, he in turn recruits the now-grown Gutjuk (now played by Jacob Junior Nayinggul) as his tracker. Cue a tangled reevaluation of tribal loyalties on all sides, unpicked with minimal chatter by Anastassiades’ script, which largely prefers to let the triggers do the talking.
The fallout is urgent and stinging, if not exactly unexpected. This may be fictionalized narrative, but it honors its ugly patch of history by refusing to treat it with much in the way of twisting sensationalism. Indeed, what’s most surprising about “High Ground” is how sturdily low-key it remains for a film with such a rampingly high body count, while even star attraction Baker — in a nominally heroic role — keeps things quietly stoic. As the film proceeds sternly into its third act, it may feel as if certain violent setpieces have been more or less restaged several times, perhaps at some cost to standard notions of mounting tension, but not inappropriately for a tale of carnage that would be repeated many times over before white Australians were forced to acknowledge their land’s original ownership. “Your anger is all you have,” a Yolngu tribeswoman counsels Gutjuk; conscientious if cautious, Johnson’s film seems aware that for many Indigenous folk, this remains the case.