“When you’ve got the high ground you control everything,” Travis (Simon Baker) tells Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul) during a key moment in director Stephen Johnson’s meat pie western, shot on location in Kakadu national park and Arnhem Land and set in the early 20th century. This is what we call a “title drop”, an oddly satisfying moment given it simply consists of a person inside the narrative universe pronouncing the title of the film.
It isn’t one of those eye-rolling title drops, like when grizzly old Liam Neeson grumbled “she’s been taken” in Taken, or when a man unhelpfully told Casey Affleck “I pray for her, because she’s gone baby gone” in ... yes ... Gone Baby Gone. Johnson’s film – written by Chris Anastassiades and produced by Witiyana Marika, who was one of the founding members of Yothu Yindi and appears in a supporting role – has big things on its mind, such as the cyclical nature of violence and coming to terms with colonial Australia’s brutal history.
In Johnson’s hands, this title drop is an opportunity to raise ideas about the film’s subtext and characters. The high ground is literal and symbolic. Travis is a sniper who positions himself on rocks and hills before scenes of confrontation (literal) and is also a fundamentally decent person, quitting the police force to become a bounty hunter after being appalled by the covering up of a massacre (moral and symbolic).
Gutjuk takes Travis’s spiel about the high ground seriously, passing messages about how to “control and engage” on to other people. It feels weird for a white man to convey the key philosophy of a film that explores the brutal impact of settlement, though High Ground avoids the “white saviour” trope despite coming a little too close for comfort, with several moments of heroism and sacrifice establishing Travis as the moral centre of the picture.
In the lead up to the first violent moment, Johnson depicts daily activities within an Indigenous community – a trio of men hunting for food, a young boy rehearsing spear motions – situated around an idyllic lake . When on-the-run bandits and police burst into the community and wholesale murder ensues, the point has been made that this scene is not just about the destruction of a single community but of a culture, a people, a way of living.
Gutjuk is one of the survivors of the massacre and is subsequently raised on a Christian mission. He reunites with Travis 12 years after the event, the sharp-shooter recruiting him as a tracker after his former police chief (Jack Thompson) asks him to help hunt down another survivor, the vengeful Baywara (Sean Mununggurr).
Like The Nightingale and The Furnace – two other recent westerns that ask important questions about Australia’s past – the relationship between a white principal character and a person of colour is core to the film. But while the relationship between Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) and Clare (Aisling Franciosi) felt intimately close in The Nightingale, and likewise for the friendship between Hanif (Ahmed Malek) and Mal (David Wenham) in The Furnace, a sense of distance splinters the relationship between Travis and Gutjuk in High Ground; the tensions between them feel under-explored.
This has to do in part with gaps in time and geographical distances that separate them, as well as complex feelings Gutjuk has for Travis. But Johnson and screenwriter Anastassiades may also be held back by their fondness for Baker’s character. The film prioritises his perspective (which is reflected in its title) and is at pains to show him behaving valiantly – including killing his own men for harming Indigenous people and a significant climactic moment I won’t divulge here.
Jacob Junior Nayinggul is a commanding and enigmatic presence as Gutnik; I wondered what the film would be like if it were framed more fully from his perspective. Baker is fine as the stoic Australian male: the stern and carefully spoken type who doesn’t say much, but when he does it counts. The great Aaron Pedersen is underused in a side role that’s also gruff and forbearing (with a Jay Swan-esque twang) and Ryan Corr doesn’t get to do much as a priest, despite the influence of Christianity on Indigenous communities being significantly underexplored in Australian film.
Andrew Commis’ cinematography avoids the gluggy, highly saturated look associated with intense outback heat, with handheld camerawork that feels gently inquisitive. Small visual detours sprinkled throughout explore the natural world – from raptors gliding in the sky (visions of which become visual callbacks) to snakes slithering around and blades of grass oscillating in the breeze.
These images are presented matter-of-factly, for the purpose of evoking environmental detail rather than creating a psychological impression of the landscape (as in the 1971 classic Walkabout). High Ground never comes close to matching the bittersweet majesty of Sweet Country or the painful polemic of The Nightingale – but it’s well made and directed gracefully, offsetting hard-hitting sequences with handsome production values.
• High Ground is in Australian cinemas from 28 January