“High Ground” is a violent, vengeance-driven Western set at the end of the Frontier era in northern Australia. More intimate than epic, but gorgeous, stately and tense, it captures a last burst of tit-for-tat reprisals in a country starting to face its genocidal past and racist present.
This can’t-do things-that-way-any-more epiphany only comes as the country slides into the Great Depression and an uprising starts in remote Arnhem Land, one sparked by a massacre a dozen years before. Yes, this was going on as recently as that.
The film takes great pains to show Aboriginal life and the point of view of the continent’s native people as it tells its story from the point of view of a survivor of that massacre, a little boy (Guruwuk Mununggurr) whose life is shattered in mere moments when virtually his entire family/clan is wiped out.
Simon Baker plays a World War I sharpshooter turned law enforcement officer. In any potential confrontation, Travis always seeks the high ground, a vantage point where his accuracy can end a fight in a hurry. That’s where he is when a posse closes in on an Edenic watering hole in some of the most stunning Australian scenery ever put on film.
Little Gutjuk is too young to have absorbed all of the wilderness skills and folkways of his family. As the police-led posse shows up to question the family about stolen cattle, the kid picks the worst possible moment to panic over a snake. In a flash, the slaughter begins and ends.
Travis, appalled, sees all this play out through the scope of his Mauser. When he finally climbs down into it, he stops the murdering of witnesses with his gun and without hesitation.
And he’s the one who takes Gutjuk to the nearby Alligator River mission, where he leaves him with the pastor’s sister (Caren Pistorius of “Unhinged”) and the Aboriginal congregation there.
The bad blood between Travis and his colleague, formerly his wartime spotter/partner Eddy (Callan Mulvey) will fester for years, even if there are no legal consequences for this latest slaughter of the disenfranchised natives.
When an uncle starts an uprising, burning settlement “stations” and killing a white woman, adult Gutjuk, renamed Tommy (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) is ordered to lead police to his uncle (Sean Mungunggurr) to “bring him in” by Royal commissioner (Jack Thompson) in charge.
Tommy wants to know if Travis is there to “kill my uncle,” and Travis wants to know if this is yet another “punitive expedition” against the Aborigines. He’s the only white man in all of this who wonders “Why? There’s always a why?”
Uncle Baywarra is getting revenge for that massacre a dozen years earlier.
“High Ground” is the second feature and second film with an Aboriginal story (“Yolngu Boy”) of director Stephen Johnson, who works mostly in Australian TV. Much of the tale unfolds through the lens of a rifle scope, as Travis — a second father figure for Gutjuk — teaches him how to shoot, and to seek “the high ground,” where he can dictate the terms of a confrontation.
Johnson takes pains to show the unspoiled beauty of a land visited by all this violence, and screenwriter Chris Anastassiades (who wrote “Yolngu Boy”) has the testy, racist Eddy state the obvious about the root cause of this conflict.
“Two people can’t share a country.”
We’re shown the debates and rationalizations of the natives, speaking Jawoyn (with English subtitles) as some seek revenge and others look for a parlay, a negotiated way out.
Johnson’s devotion to shots of birds — in flocks and solo, screeching their various calls — suggests a nod to their symbolism in Aboriginal culture that won’t be obvious to most viewers.
Character motivations aren’t the clearest, and loyalties can seem to turn on a half penny. But the stand-offs are suspenseful, brutal and skillfully staged.
And the performances — from Baker’s resigned stoicism and Mulvey’s hotheadedness to Thompson’s cynical pragmatism — are first-rate, with newcomer Nayinggul holding his own with the veteran cast.
It’s not “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith,” but Johnson has crafted a striking look at Aboriginal life tucked into a most engrossing tale of racism that manifests itself in violence, violence which has consequences whose blowback can comes years and years later.
MPA rating: unrated, bloody violence, nudity, profanity
Cast: Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Callan Mulvey, Sean Mununggurr, Caren
Pistorius, Witiyana Marika and Jack Thompson
Credits Stephen Johnson, script by Chris Anastassiades. A Samuel Goldwyn release.
Running time: 1:44