Synopsis: In a bid to save the last of his family, a young Aboriginal man, teams up with an ex-soldier to track down the most dangerous warrior in the Territory, his uncle.
Stars: Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Callan Mulvey, Caren Pistorius, Jack Thompson, Witiyana Marika, Aaron Pedersen, Ryan Corr, Esmerelda Marimowa
Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Part of the perks of exposure to so many films is that you are often afforded the opportunity to see a movie that might not have otherwise caught your attention. Maybe it’s from a fledgling studio that happened to land the right PR firm who represents the perfect studio, or it could be the star is someone you’ve liked before in other work and are curious to see if they can deliver again. More often than not, simply the premise is enough to draw you in, suggesting a film offering an experience that will be different than what you’d normally encounter. You can toss the dice and lose, like I did recently with the muddy and ruddy dialogue free pig doc Gunda or you might be a high roller and find a diamond in the rough title like High Ground.
Equal parts western (by way of the Outback in the 1930’s), revenge thriller, and history lesson, High Ground is based on true events that took place during a bleak period in Australia’s history wherein the government brutally strong-armed their colonization the indigenous Aboriginal people. It’s through one of these real-life stories that director Stephen Maxwell Johnson and screenwriter Chris Anastassiades take their cues, largely based on years of information they gathered from Aboriginal elders. Though white, the men have sought (and evidently received) approval from the heads within the native population to tell the story from the Aboriginal point of view. Along with cultural consultant Witiyana Marika, a respected voice from the Yolngu community in the Northern Territory, High Ground is the fruit of a lengthy labor of love.
Beginning with a prologue that introduces young Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr) and his tribe, the gentle opening features glorious images of an untouched landscape and the people that called it home. Headed up by Dharrpa (Marika), members of his tribe include Gutjuk’s father and uncle both of whom are feeling responsible for educating the young boy in the ways of contributing to his community. Tranquility is shortlived, however, when a routine security check-in by police sent by the government turns into a massacre that decimates most of the tribe, including Gutjuk’s father.
One member of the police that didn’t participate in this bloodshed is Travis (Simon Baker, The Devil Wears Prada) a man that seems to have his morals about him. Actively defending Dharrpa’s tribe by shooting back at his own squad, Travis is ostracized for his actions while Gutjuk is taken in by a weak-willed missionary also present at the attack and his kindly sister Claire (Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines). Flash forward twelve years and Gutjuk is a young man (played by Jacob Junior Nayinggul) still living with Claire in a Christian mission outpost on the edge of colonized land. A wave of attacks on the residents of land formerly occupied by the native Aboriginal people initiated by Baywarra (Sean Mununggurr), Dharrpa’s son, is sending fear through the dry country and a grizzled police chief (Jack Thompson, The Great Gatsby) calls in an old friend, Travis, to stop the incendiary force before it is too late.
When Travis arrives at the mission, he recognizes the boy he saved all those years ago and remembers the connection he has to Dharrpa and, by proxy, Baywarra. Using Gutjuk’s skills as a tracker to lead him to his target, Travis is once again placed in a position of choosing between his own ethics and the law of the land. Unbeknownst to Travis and fearing such a quandary of conscience in his hunter for hire, the police chief sends another two men to trail Travis and Gutjuk as a safety precaution. Led by Travis’ best frenemy Eddy (Callan Mulvey, Shadow in the Cloud) the back-up duo becomes yet another of the harsh elements for Travis and Gutjuk to face as they make their way back to the location where they first met a decade earlier where a reckoning is set to occur.
To their extreme credit, Johnson and Anastassiades don’t sugarcoat the violence inflicted on the indigenous people during this unfathomable time. I think filmmakers not intimately acquainted with the people that were affected by and have felt the generation repercussions of the events that transpired like what High Ground depicts would have shied away from showing some of the atrocities. If anything, Johnson lingers on the bloody aftermath of death and innocent lives being lost. It’s not exploitative but rather eye-opening. That the film can slip in so many of the horrifying historical details, many of which viewers will likely not be aware of to their full extent, while maintaining audience engagement is rather astounding.
The casting of real tribespeople and many newcomers also aids in an authenticity that never could have been achieved if High Ground was made anywhere but on the land it depicts. Even if not the most proficient of actors from a technical standpoint, it’s hard to deny the power of the performances. Give me an actor like Esmerelda Marimowa (as Gulwirri, one of the few females in the film but delivering some of the most unforgettable scenes) over most of the Supporting Actress nominees at the Independent Spirit Awards this year. All the Bad White Men in the movie are appropriately Bad and White but Thompson is especially good at being a real racist devil. I’ve always liked Baker and he’s very good in the movie, as is Pistorius (thankfully free from Unhinged, that horrifying Russell Crowe movie I’d just as soon forget) but both are millimeters from White Savior territory, so much so that I feel even praising their roles too much would push them over the edge. Besides, it’s Navinggul’s movie to walk away with, which he does with ease. An actor that has a mystery to him, he’s able to invite you to inch forward in your seat and be far more interested in what he’s doing than anyone else on screen. It’s perfect for the character and signals a true star in the making.
Beautiful cinematography and a sparse soundtrack that is primarily made up of ambient sound compliment the overall tone Johnson was going for with High Ground. I had no idea what to expect when heading in (I didn’t watch the preview and I’d suggest you don’t either) so had the good fortune of watching with no preconceived notions of what High Ground should be. It plateaus near the ¾ mark and doesn’t quite dislodge itself in either direction before the end but that’s no matter, the height it has reached is good enough to easily recommend you give this kangaroo western a shot. You may learn something.