Simon Baker has hair like a woman (I am quoting a jab made towards his character in Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s High Ground and not stating my personal opinion, which is that he is a very handsome and distinguished Australian talent.) He plays Travis, an ex-sniper and person-who-keeps-some-truly-awful-company in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory in 1919. He is involved in a police operation that ends in the massacre of an Aboriginal tribe and orphans a boy named Gutjuk (newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul), whom he handballs to be raised by well-meaning missionary captors. Travis later hires Gutjuk (or Tommy, as he’s been called for the last twelve years by his white stand-in mother) as his tracker for a search and destroy mission of a ‘wild mob’ who have been wreaking havoc with new settlers. Things, as is often the case, don’t go as planned. This film is told from the perspectives of two people – Travis, a white man haunted by his past mistakes and trying to correct them, and Gutjuk, a young Aboriginal man caught in the middle of two seemingly contradictory cultures who must decide who he wants to be.
Gutjuk’s name means ‘hawk’ and we are reminded of this in the sweeping drone shots that punctuate the story. Travis trains Gutjuk to shoot from a hilltop and tells him “when you’ve got the high ground, you control when to engage.” When Gutjuk later repeats this logic to Gulwirri, his traveling companion and voice of reason for the second part of the film, she tells him he “thinks like a white man.” He is at an impasse with his identity – leaning either way always seems to disappoint someone in his life. It seems Gutjuk has the only truly objective viewpoint – he is the translator for his grandfather, constantly being put in the middle of warring words. He protects Travis when Travis is at the mercy of his tribe. He shows genuine affection for his white surrogate mother Claire. He listens to Gulwirri when other members of the tribe view her simply as the ‘wild one’ and do not heed her advice. Being the hawk is a blessing and a curse for Gutjuk as he is perpetually trying to reconcile his influences in a time when neither side was particularly open to change.
The supporting cast is made up of recognisable white Australian actors like Jack Thompson (would it be an Aussie film without him?) and villain-faced Callan Mulvey, Aboriginal musician and producer of the film Witiyana Marika as the esteemed patriarch of the tribe, first-time actors like Esmerelda Marimowa – exquisite as Gulwirri, and Aaron Pedersen in spectacular form as terrifying true neutral Walter.
The dedication at the end to Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu, an Australian of the Year both-ways educator and frontman of Yothu Yindi, is a touching tribute to a man who sadly did not get to see the end result of the many years of effort that went into this film but who I’m sure would’ve been incredibly proud of a work that holds the stories of Arnhem Land’s traditional owners in the highest regard and that balances viewpoints so well. The only complaint I have is that there are some cartoonish lines towards the end that felt a little out of place, like they belonged in a different style of film. I blame my beloved Tarantino for that influence.
I watched this film on my laptop, plonked in front of the lounge aircon on a hot Sunday arvo, with headphones blocking out my surroundings. This setup amplified the sound design (sort of an anti-ASMR experience for someone afraid of most birds and bugs) and also the glaringly obvious fact that I live comfortably in a country that I was not meant to inhabit. I wish in hindsight that I had seen it at Perth Festival amongst the trees and loud crow caws of UWA’s Somerville Auditorium, but it will be playing in cinemas from January 28th and I would recommend attending an outdoor session if you can. This is an important film that all Australians should see while we still have the opportunity to show our support in large numbers.
High Ground opens in cinemas Jan 28 – Rating: 8/10
You can also watch our interview with Simon Baker and Jacob Junior Nayinggul here.