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VOD Review: High Ground

May 14, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Set in Australia’s Northern Territory in the first half of the 20th century, High Ground is an Australian western that grapples with the country’s dark history of colonialism and violence against Indigenous peoples.

The film opens in 1919, with a young Aboriginal boy named Gutjuk (played as a child by Guruwuk Mununggurr) being trained to hunt and throw spears by his Yolngu tribe. But, when a group of white officers come into their community, the scene quickly descends into shocking violence.

Most of Gutjuk’s family is slaughtered, and Travis (Simon Baker), a sniper watching the botched operation from above who was supposed to be the only one with authority to shoot, comes down from his post and rescues him from the massacre. Gutjuk is taken to be raised by Christian missionaries, and Travis leaves the police force, dismayed at their attempts to cover up the slaughter.

This genuinely startling violence unfolds in bright sunlight, allowing every gunshot wound and burst of blood to be seen in graphic, sickening detail. It’s a jarring juxtaposition, but the point of High Ground is to force us to reckon with the violence of Australia’s past, and director Stephen Johnson, who previously made the 2001 film Yolngu Boy, doesn’t flinch in showing this brutality.

The film then flashes forward to twelve years later. One of the survivors of the massacre, Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), who happens to be Gutjuk’s uncle, starts burning down train stations and carrying out attacks against white people. Travis is brought back to take down Baywara, reuniting with Gutjack (played as a young adult by Jacob Junior Nayinggul), and using him as a tracker.

While Travis is sort of set up as a moral anchor in the film, High Ground sidesteps dated “white saviour” tropes in favour of a dynamic that is much messier and more complicated. There are some gaps in the story, with the twelve year jump not showing us Gutjuk’s actual upbringing, which removes some of the nuances of how he has been influenced by the white missionaries. This is one aspect of the story that could have been explored further. But High Ground still offers an interesting look at the impacts of colonial violence, both on those who survive it and those who are forced to carry it out.

The screenplay by Chris Anastassiades features some well written negotiation scenes between the white and Aboriginal characters, showing the underlying tensions that exist between the bursts of extreme violence. This is all very well acted by the cast, with Baker doing expectedly solid work, and newcomer Nayinggul delivering an engaging breakout performance. The film also features striking cinematography by Andrew Commis, including some vibrant Steadicam work that allows the camera to hover close to the actor’s faces and gives certain moments added immediacy.

High Ground is now available to watch on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vortex Media.

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