(director: Stephen Johnson; screenwriter: Chris Anastassiades; cinematographer: Andrew Commis; editors: Jill Bilcock, Karyn de Cinque, Hayley Miro Browne; cast: Simon Baker (Travis), Jack Thompson (Moran), Jacob Junior Nayinggu (Gutjuk), Callan Mulvey (Eddy), Caren Pistorius (Claire), Sean Mununggur (Baywara), Ryan Carr (Braddock), Esmerelda Marimowa (Gulwirri), Aaron Pedersen (Walter); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: David Jowsey/Wityana Marika/Maggie Miles/Greer Simpkin; A Samuel Goldwyn release/Savage Films; 2020-Australia-in English & Yolngu Matha)
“A disturbing Outback western about the ugliness of colonialism.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A disturbing Outback western about the ugliness of colonialism, set in the last century, in the Northern Territory, that tells a sad tale of government wrongs. It’s directed by Stephen Johnson (“Yolgu Boy”) and written by Chris Anastassiades, as a sobering account of how badly the aboriginal tribes during those Frontier days in the early 20th century were treated by the racist government. If not an apology, it’s certainly a change in mood about government misrule, and clearly calls out the Aussie government for genocide and being racist. It’s revisionist history, a film that results in an engaging but hard to watch bloody thriller. But it’s visually spectacular as to its landscape vistas and satisfying intellectually for its guilt-ridden story told from the Anglo side that tries to see if it can clear the air.
The principal figures of High Ground are Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul played as an adult), a little boy at the time and one of three survivors of an Aboriginal village’s massacre in 1919 by a police raid, with the other survivors being Dårrpa (Witiyana Marika), leader of the clan (of an Indigenous people known as Yolngu), and his son Baywara (Mark Garrawurra).
It’s now 1931 and the white soldier Travis (Simon Baker), who served as a sniper in the Great War and who saved Gutjuk during the massacre and brought him to the nearby missionary to be raised by the minister’s sister Claire (Caren Pistorius), and as a result of the massacre being covered up quit the police force to become a bounty hunter. Travis is currently alarmed that the Aboriginals are threatened again with genocide when Gutjuk’s outlaw uncle is targeted because he has waged a guerilla war on white settlers, even killing a woman in one of his raids.
The government orders the military to act, with the elderly officer Moran (Jack Thompson) and trigger-happy racist policeman Eddy (Callan Mulvey) arriving to take Baywara (now played by Sean Mununggur) into custody. They enlist a reluctant Travis to join their expedition, and he in turn induces Gutjuk, called Tommy by the whites, to lead him to his grandfather. In the course of their journey the two grow closer, and are able to stop an attack by Eddy and a mixed-race tracker named Walter (Aaron Pederson), who both believe that Travis has gone too native for them.
Travis tells Gutjak on the search that “once you’ve got the high ground you control everything.” Which becomes the literal message of the film, a film told from the POV of the massacre survivor.
The bigot Eddy tells us the obvious cause of this black and white conflict is that “Two people can’t share a country.”
Some victims seek revenge while others want to talk things over, seems be what the film leaves us with (that people of different circumstances can still come together, which is the hope for the country)–with the white Travis as the film’s hero (the white savior) and moral compass for the film.
REVIEWED ON 6/15/2021 GRADE: B+