In Australia’s Northern Territory in 1919, a group of Australian frontier servicemen advance on a camp of Aboriginal men and women peacefully going about life. Their goals are unclear, but their rifles remain prominent, and the tension continues to rise. The events that follow start rapidly, an indigenous man spots one of the trespassers and rushes him with a spear, only to be shot down. Suddenly, hearing the gunshot, the other servicemen rush to the scene, and a blood-curdling massacre begins.
All the while, upon a nearby cliff face is Travis (Simon Baker), a sniper from The Great War, under orders to be the only one doing any shooting should any be required. He soon makes his way down to the drama and, in a fit of outrage, ends the life of one of the Queen’s men who was continuing to kill. With only his spotter from the war, Eddy (Callan Mulvey), and distraught priest Braddock (Ryan Corr) left alive, all Travis can do is soak in the misery and leave, but not before finding one final survivor, a young boy named Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), hiding in the river.
This is how Stephen Johnson’s High Ground opens, ruthlessly. Then the film cuts and begins again 12 years later as word goes around of a dangerous mob burning outposts and murdering those who get in their way, a discovery that points to High Ground’s narrative core, cycles of revenge. Revenge beginning with one previously unknown survivor of the opening events, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), Gutjuk’s uncle. Johnson’s approach changes drastically after this revelation from high-intensity slaughter to drawn-out goose hunt. With no sign of the violence stopping, Travis takes Gutjuk to hunt Baywara down, showing no indication of if he will kill or spare him, and Eddy is sent out behind them to ensure the job gets done. Here is where the film will win over or lose everyone who watches it.
High Ground will move and absorb anyone drawn in by the subtle beauty of Travis and Gutjuk’s relationship. Those more interested in the grander scope of the period, and perhaps looking for more of a history lesson, will find themselves disinterested about as soon as Travis sets off. Of course, I don’t mean to insinuate that this isn’t firmly historically inspired, I’m just saying these characters aren’t real, and unlike Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale”, they don’t feel real either. The characters come across more as tools than people, or chess pieces, plenty of function and no personality. The story itself is full of near countless twists and turns, most of which land quite well, but there’s just a lack of humanity at times that only Baker and Mulvey manage to overcome.
The pair are enthralling together at times, often at each other’s throats in their own ways. Travis the much wiser and calm man, always knowing what Eddy will do before he does it, and Eddy, the aggressor, never understanding any of Travis’ motivations but never able to entirely turn his back on him. High Ground is at its best when they share the screen, which is unfortunately not all too often. Corr is also good, but his screen time almost amounts to only a cameo which is a shame.
As a whole, there is a lot to enjoy for those with the patience. The cinematography by Andrew Commis does a massive credit to the beauty in the harsh Northern Territory environment. The use of indigenous language throughout is also well worth noting as it is far too uncommon in films with similar subject matters, but is utilised frequently here. Nayinggul and Witiyana Marika who plays Gutjuk’s grandfather, provide strong turns as well, but neither gets as much to work with as you would assume. All of these aspects are things to like about High Ground, but you’ll still be looking for something to love.
Overall High Ground always teases that it’s going to be something exceptional and never manages to fully deliver. It’s still very much worth watching, but the sensation that it all should have been more will hang in the air as the credits roll.
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