Perth Festival 2020: HIGH GROUND

The ‘Meat Pie Western’ (or Kangaroo Western, depending on your source), Australia’s akubra-adorned answer to the Spaghetti Western, have always been a cornerstone of the Australian film industry, arriving in sudden bursts before fading away again throughout history. Stephen Johnson‘s High Ground, a middle-of-the-road entry into this bursting canon, appears in the midst our latest surge of revisionist Westerns, caused by the one-two punch of Warwick Thornton‘s Sweet Country and Jennifer Kent’s equally-incendiary The Nightingale.

High Ground follows this fresh trend, remixing Fred Schepisi‘s groundbreaking adaptation of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith with a National Geographic documentary on the Kakadu National Park for a result that feels like a Aussie-Western Garage Sale, a collection of well-worn archetypes, derivative narrative templates and seething historical outrage all fighting for control in a film poetically centred on that very struggle.

The Road to Revenge

Beginning in 1919 and taking place in the lush outback of Arnhem Land, Andrew Commis‘ sun-scorched handheld camerawork immediately brings us into Travis’ (Simon Baker) apprehensive engagement, where under his rusted sniper scope, the policeman is forced to witness an unwarranted arrest of two fugitive Aboriginals quickly descend into the gory massacre of most of Aboriginal elder Dharrpa’s (Witiyana Marika) tribe – women and children included.

The bloody aftermath leaves young Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr) an orphan and his injured uncle Baywarra (Sean Mununggurr) lust for revenge. The two surviving witnesses, Travis and fellow lawman Eddy (Callan Mulvey) leave Gutjuk to a local missionary outpost, and agree to go their seperate ways; one with the law and the other with the land.

Perth Festival 2020: HIGH GROUND
source: Madman Films

Like Sweet Country, Chris Anastassiades‘ script reframes Australia’s racist and sexist colonialist history within recognisable John Ford-Western frames, picking up the action 12 years later and flipping this tragic event into the setup for a textbook revenge drama. With a now-vengeful Baywarra engaging in a scorched-Earth strategy against his white oppressors, Travis’ former boss (Australian film royalty Jack Thompson) employs a dispirited Travis, still an individual driven by justice, to stop Baywarra’s reign of terror before more people are killed in the chaos.

Reluctant to put his toe inside the water that swallowed him whole years prior, the shaggy huntsman decides to take the job with the now-adult Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), hoping for peaceful abdication, rather than an echo of the trauma that haunts him – but if we’ve learned anything from stories like these, history is always doomed to repeat itself.

Throwback Nature

Johnson keeps the slow-burning developments relatively low-key in fashion but riddled with bursts of bloody shootouts and tense stand-offs that frequently shifts the proceedings from a lean chase picture, to a grisly revenge Ozploitation throwback, before settling into a remorseful morality play. High Ground‘s indecisiveness leads to its underlying grandiose themes of Australia’s savage past and how we did – and didn’t – navigate our ways out of it getting lost in translation.

Gutjuk’s growth from being a sheltered Christian adoptee into the wholesome embrace of his ancestral roots contains the aspects of a fully-fledged, albeit formulaic, journey for us to follow, but the nagging addition of Travis’ tale shades this film with a tiresome white savour complex.

The tricky negotiation of layering this saga with supporting white characters often overcrowds the minimalistic proceedings, especially when the appearances of another Aboriginal tracker Walter (Aaron Pedersen), and another female victim Gulwurri (Esmerelda Marimowa), are sidelined in favour of scenes of how their suffering affects the white locals, including brother-sister pair, Braddock (Ryan Corr) and Claire (Unhinged star Caren Pistorius).

Their expendable interactions already pad out a picture that drags itself to 90 minutes with incessant interjections of B-roll nature footage of the Kakadu National Park. These endless cutaways don’t ring like Malick-esque detours into nature’s indifference to our pointless carnage but rather they vibrate like a scotch-tape workaround to piece together an underwritten plot (this isn’t one of editor Jill Billcock‘s finest hours).


High Ground passes every landmark of the proliferating Meat Pie Western surge that has resurfaced in recent years but is unable to escape the kind of calculable cliches which movies of this ilk often fall prey to. While its archaic form gestures towards something far more modern in its closing statements of reconciliation and acknowledgment of Australia’s dark past, Stephen Johnson’s sophomore feature is a tiresome trek through familiar territory.

High Ground screens at Perth Festival 4 – 10 January before opening in cinemas 28 January.

Lotterywest Films runs from 30 November 2020 – 28 March 2020. Details about program schedules and other films/events can be found here:

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