By Theresa Rodewald.
Instead of perpetuating the myth of Australia as terra nullius or ’empty land’ that previous to European settlement had not belonged to anyone, the film depicts the clash of colonisers and First Nations people in a country that had been anything but empty.”
Gorgeously shot and drawing on elements of revenge thrillers as well as westerns, High Ground tackles an aspect of Australian history that is still under-represented in cinema. The film examines and subverts the myth of the frontier and grapples with Australia’s colonial legacy.
Arnhem Land, northern Australia, 1931: Travis (Simon Baker), an ex-sharpshooter and World War I veteran, reluctantly agrees to track down Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), the most dangerous warrior in the Territory. When Travis teams up with Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggu), he sees a chance to atone for the massacre committed by his former police unit twelve years ago. As one of two survivors of the massacre, Gutjuk, however, is out for revenge.
High Ground invokes visual and thematic conventions of the western genre but also challenges its underlying mythology. Instead of perpetuating the myth of Australia as terra nullius or “empty land” that previous to European settlement had not belonged to anyone, the film depicts the clash of colonisers and First Nations people in a country that had been anything but empty.
Visuals and sound pit the settlers and their signifiers of violence against the landscape. Andrew Commis’ cinematography contrasts sweeping wide-shots of nature with hand-held close-ups of faces and weapons and Chris Goodes’ stunning sound design juxtaposes nature – rustling leaves, buzzing insects, cawing birds – with violence – rifle shots, the click of a loaded gun, the thud of a bandolier hitting the ground. Instead of emphasising the otherness of the landscape and the people who inhabit it, High Ground shows the colonisers as alien. Costumes, production design, and make-up convey the feeling that these people are jarringly out of place, that they do not belong.
Westerns have a long-standing tradition of violence. Shootouts are their preferred form of conflict solution and guns, holsters, and rifles have become visual cues, as readily associated with the genre as cowboy hats and horses. Instead of glorifying or justifying “frontier justice”, High Ground exposes the brutality inherent in colonialist settlement and zooms in on the self-perpetuating, cyclical nature of violence. Violence permeates the fabric of the film. It is fueled as much by colonial delusions of dominance as it pervades seemingly benign actions. The only way Travis knows how to communicate that he trusts Gutjuk, is by teaching him to shoot a rifle.
Travis appears to be the good guy, a verbally and emotionally reticent yet fundamentally decent western hero. At times, the film only narrowly avoids invoking the white saviour narrative but it complicates this trope by exposing Travis’ fundamentally flawed notion that Gutjuk is in need of salvation. Gutjuk is conflicted, having grown up in a Christian mission after surviving the massacre, he is trying to find his roots, but he does not need to be saved or protected. Thus, High Ground, manages to address the complicated issue of good intentions that mask unsettling beliefs. When Travis tells Gutjuk about the importance of having the high ground, he explains the technical details of being a sniper as much as he unwittingly makes a statement about moral superiority.
At first glance, Travis is the polar opposite of his former army comrade Eddy (Callan Mulvey), an openly racist police officer. On closer examination, however, they are two sides of the same coin. Travis is just as complicit in the ongoing injustices as Eddy. During World War I, Travis was a sniper and Eddy his spotter. They shared one task – Eddy identified the targets and Travis pulled the trigger – a perfect metaphor for their shared complicity. By splicing the act of killing, they distribute the guilt that comes with it, a process that also evades accountability. This idea of evading accountability, of justifying what is essentially unjust, is at the heart of High Ground. Eddy might be more aggressive, more overtly racist but Travis’ idea of teaching Gutjuk is permeated by a well-meaning, gentler bias. By setting Travis against Eddy, the film reminds us that some biases are obvious and others are implicit but all of them contribute to larger systems of inequality.
High Ground is a superbly crafted and acted film. An exploration of colonialism as well as a western and revenge thriller, it features action, suspense and sweeping shots of breathtaking landscapes. The cast combines first-time actors with seasoned stars and all of them are equally watchable. While Witiyana Marika, senior elder of the Rirratjingu Clan in the Northern Territory, produced the film and contributed as cultural advisor and actor, High Ground was directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson, a white man. Still, the film is a step in the right direction and will hopefully be followed by more westerns, more period dramas and more widely distributed films that are written and directed by First Nations filmmakers.
High Ground is On Digital and On Demand from May 14, 2021.
Theresa Rodewald, MA, studied Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and Cultural Studies in Germany and Ireland. She writes for a number of independent film magazines, including L-MAG and Berliner Filmfestivals, and has written about critiques of capitalism in current gangster films, images of masculinity in Scarface (1932) and the representation of queer women in mainstream cinema. She is a contributor to the forthcoming David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press).