Like the finest American westerns, more recent Australian examples of the genre have focused on re-examining a romanticised past - in Australia's case, the country's brutal convict origins and white settlers' violent dispossession of Indigenous people. Produced by Bunya Productions with Maggie Miles, director Stephen Maxwell Johnson (who previously explored aboriginal culture in 'Yolngu Boy'), and Yothu Yindi co-founder Witiyana Marika, 'High Ground' manages to honour the familiar path of depicting the tragedy of native owners of the land.
The film opens in 1919 in the Northern Territory. The quiet world of the Dharrpa tribe is disrupted by the appearance of two fugitives, pursued by a small band of police officers. A standoff occurs, leading to the swift and brutal massacre of the innocent mob. From the carnage, a young man named Baywara (Mark Garrawurra) survives after being left for dead, along with his nephew, a boy who is known as Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr). The little one is taken back to the local Christian mission by Travis (Simon Baker, 'Breath'), a police officer and former army sniper, who harshly condemns the actions of his colleagues, including his partner Eddy (Callan Mulvey, 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'). Haunted by these events and the subsequent coverup, Travis leaves his career in law enforcement behind and makes his way in the bush with his skills as a sharpshooter.
12 years later, the WWI veteran is contacted by his former police regiment. They need his help to apprehend an Indigenous gang that is terrorising farmers - Baywara has become the leader of a mob, attacking local stations with their own form of vigilante justice. The police need to capture or kill him in order to keep a lid on the mistakes from over a decade ago. Captain Moran (Jack Thompson, 'The Great Gatsby') and Eddy eventually coerce Travis into tracking the man, along with the grown-up Gutjuk, now known as Tommy (Jacob Junior Nayinggul). Neither man fits into white civilization, and a bond quickly forms between them. The problem is that Tommy doesn't remember Travis' role in the massacre that orphaned him, and its anyone's guess where his loyalties will eventually come to lie once he's reunited with his people.
The nature of things is cyclical. Everything must be created, serve its purpose, and then cease to exist. Within that exists a number of smaller cycles that lead us to our inevitable end. However, a cycle of violence is something that is unique to living creatures. In 'High Ground', Maxwell Johnson presents the idea of cycles of violence as a notion cemented into the very foundation of Australian society. As for the film's characters, they begin as simple people, but they are quickly roped out of that normalcy and placed into a pre-established cycle that changes the values they've tried to maintain in their lives. Cycles of violence originate from a certain point, and once they do, they make themselves comfortable in the shadows of people's everyday lives.
With its sprawling desert vistas and violent frontier conflict, the Outback of old isn't so far removed from the Wild West of American legend and cinema - which is why, of course, there's a whole subgenre of Aussie Westerns, from 'Mad Dog Morgan' to 'The Proposition', 'Sweet Country' and 'The Nightingale'. Maxwell Johnson doesn't reinvent this wheel and some of his action sequences are clumsily staged, but he does provide 'High Ground' with a few points of difference, particularly Gutjuk's community's depictions. Chris Anastassiades' screenplay digs deeper into the Indigenous familial atmosphere by showing the individuals who make up the tribal tapestry. This allows viewers to see that the complex systems of organisation, communication and care may vary from others, but they are intricate and fragile. It also largely avoids becoming a white saviour film by focusing heavily on the perspective of Gutjuk.
In 'High Ground', Maxwell Johnson presents the idea of cycles of violence as a notion cemented into the very foundation of Australian society.
Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that the characters would have benefited from a little more texture. What is Gutjuk's life like as Tommy with his kind-hearted missionary family? Why does Travis have so much empathy for the Indigenous community that he's willing to turn on a wartime ally? Despite this, Baker, Mulvey, and Nayinggul (Aaron Pedersen also appears as Walter, a surly tracker) all manage to deliver solid performances that hold your attention through to the harrowing conclusion.
Arguably, the biggest star is the scenery - 'High Ground' was shot on location in Kakadu Park and Arnhem Land. Cinematographer Andrew Commis ('Babyteeth') uses the vastness of the rocky terrain, dense bushland, twisted foliage and tones of the southern sky as a working canvas. It's accompanied by a soundtrack of birds chirping and cicadas humming - there is no music, and large spans of the film are dialogue-free. This landscape proves to be mesmerising but, as the story begins to dig into the heritage that the earth holds in its red sands, the beauty proves to be a mask that covers years of Australia's tragic reality.
Gutjuk and Travis' tale hews a little too closely to the tradition of telling a story about a clash of cultures and how most of it led to violent ends, but the message is worth revisiting. At the heart of 'High Ground' is the tension of justice and racial struggles. Both cultures want to live their lives. Unfortunately, one sees that it must come at the expense of another. Why do these tensions exist between different races and nations? How do we stop history repeating itself? The truth is that there's always another way to enact change - a way without senseless carnage. It will be harder, and it may take longer, but it will be worth the end result. When it comes down to it, it appears that the only way to emancipate ourselves from cycles of violence is to stop building our society on top of them.