High Ground, Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s first release since 2001, is a film essential to the telling of colonial Australia’s unforgiving brutality. With a strong emphasis on narrative and impeccable cinematography, the film is jarring in its ability to move between the serene and horrifying. Despite the obvious and unquestionably broader impacts of white settlement, the microcosm of High Ground, with its few characters and few key settings, rewards viewers with a rich and character-focused tale. High Ground will be released in Australian theatres on January 28.
The film opens in 1910s Arnhem Land as a band of police officers massacre an Indigenous community in what was supposed to be a “peaceful” operation. The audience is introduced to Travis (Simon Baker), a level-headed ex-sniper and “man-of-the-law,” racist Eddy (Callan Mulvey) – Travis’ wartime “spotter” – and Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr), a six-year-old Aboriginal boy. Gutjuk is spared by a sympathetic Travis and is taken to the nearby Christian mission where he is raised and taught to assimilate. Unbeknownst to anyone but Grandfather Dharrpa (Yothu Yindi’s Wityana Marika), Baywarra (Mark Garrawurra), Gutjuk’s uncle, also survives the massacre. Skipping forward twelve years, a renegade Travis remains haunted by the past atrocity but is pressured to work with Gutjuk to find Baywarra, who is leading attacks against various white settlements. As in most thrillers, tensions, motives and pasts are revealed in a series of painful and violent events, twisting the political narrative and coming to a confronting conclusion.
Despite the short length of the opening sequence relative to the rest of the film, the introduction sets a strong premise for the aftermath that is explored in the following hour. Johnson’s ability to stir tension and intrigue barely falters when we are reintroduced to the mild-mannered Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) – now named Tommy – and the vengeful Baywarra (Sean Munungurr) twelve years on, and equally so when witnessing the frequent arguments between Travis and a perpetually-dickish Eddy. Gently balanced with the cruelty of the subject, the film has an amazing capability to punctuate dialogue with self-reflexive humour. This is particularly evident in a translated negotiation scene between Police Chief Moran – played by Jack Thompson – and Grandfather Dharrpa.
After just the first act of the film, it is easy to identify High Ground as an Australian meat-pie Western. Cinematographer Andrew Commis, notable for his work on 2019’s Babyteeth, places an emphasis on the wide expanses of Arnhem Land, filming in Kakadu National Park. Contrasting lengthy drone shots with quick and aggressive over-the-shoulder shots during confrontation scenes, the sense of movement is both soothing and relentlessly unnerving. The Northern Territory setting plays as a beautiful and striking backdrop while also foreshadowing the resilient stage of the bloody revenge-thriller to follow. There are numerous face-offs, gun fights and horseback shots that pull from the Western genre. However, High Ground has a lesser focus on spectacle than a traditional American Western and instead presents a deeper analysis of colonialism, racism and its brutality that leaves audiences gutted.
There are only a few points where High Ground falters. In the grand scheme of the film, and as one of the few women, Claire (Caren Pistorius), the missionary who raises Gutjuk, has a significant role. Despite alluding to the deeper relationship that was shared between her and Gutjuk, there is little when it comes to understanding how far her empathy and understanding of the circumstances go. Thankfully, this is something that is made clearer in the final confrontation – a moment that comes as a welcome reckoning for Eddy’s character.
Nonetheless, the nuances presented in High Ground far outweigh the parts in which the narrative could have been fleshed out. Throughout the film, there is a strong sense of audience empathy towards Gutjuk as he is reunited with Baywarra and how this impacts his relationship with Travis. There is also an intricate and delicate portrayal of Gutjuk as he is viewed as both a part of his tribe, yet in some ways naive for his relationship with Travis. Similarly, High Ground treads perceptively in Travis’ sympathies towards the local Aboriginal tribe and his reluctance in further partaking in the white settlers’ destruction, though he is ultimately not excused. The film is grounded in its exploration and understanding of injustice, neatly encapsulated in its own dialogue consoling Gutjuk: “Your anger is all you have.”
High Ground provides a welcome and authentic nuance to the revenge-thriller genre and highlights Australia’s history of injustice with a necessary harshness and nuance. The strong performances and powerful narrative make it a memorable watch.
Honi Soit attended the premiere of High Ground at the State Theatre as a guest of Sydney Film Festival’s Summer Season.