“High Ground” (available on VOD beginning Friday, May 14) works at being a few different things all at once – revenge thriller, Australian Western and a mea culpa for the misdeeds Great Britain perpetrated against Oz’s indigenous people. The movie serviceably takes on all these roles without ever completely excelling at any of them.
The picture opens somewhat shockingly in the early 1900s when a platoon of white soldiers under the command of Moran (Jack Thompson, Cliegg Lars from “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones”) invades an Aboriginal village. Sniper Travis (Simon Baker, “Land of the Dead”) is supposed to be the only one to fire, but the situation quickly goes sideways and Travis’ former spotter Eddy (Callan Mulvey, an actor who was in seemingly every comic book movie in the mid-2010s, i.e. “300: Rise of an Empire,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”) and his men begin murdering many of the village’s men, women and children. Travis, disgusted by his fellow soldiers’ actions, begins taking some of his own people out and promptly quits the unit.
The movie flashes forward 12 years. The massacre left Gutjuk (talented newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul) orphaned. He’s since been raised by missionary siblings Claire (Caren Pistorius, “Unhinged”) and Braddock (Ryan Corr).
Moran pulls Travis back into the fold with threats of holding him accountable for past actions going so far as to say, “What were your bullets doing in white men?” He wants him to hunt down and kill Baywara (Sean Mununggurr), Gutjuk’s uncle and an Aboriginal warrior who’s been attacking the invaders’ outposts. Travis, having saved Gutjuk’s life 12 years prior, enlists the young man’s services as a tracker. Travis would prefer to negotiate with the tribe’s chief and Gutjuk’s grandfather Dharrpa (Witiyana Marika) to spare Baywara’s life, but Moran is less amenable to such an idea.
During their time together Travis teaches Gutjuk how to shoot. Between his bond with Travis and having been raised by Claire and Braddock, Gutjuk’s blackness is questioned by Gulwirri (Esmerelda Marimowa), an Aborigine woman to whom he is drawn.
There’s much to admire about “High Ground.” Despite Baker being the biggest name in the cast (and serving as an executive producer), this isn’t Travis’ story so much as it’s Gutjuk’s. The film is largely from Gutjuk’s perspective and Nayinggul is up to the challenge. Baker’s Travis veers dangerously close to white saviorism, but he’s ultimately very likable and played convincingly. Thompson and Mulvey are appropriately hissable, but predominantly one-note. I wish Pistorius’ Claire and her relationship with Gutjuk were more developed, but she’s good with what little she has to do.
“High Ground” as directed by Stephen Johnson and written by Chris Anastassiades is a story that’s worth telling, but it’s hard to shake the feeling I’ve seen similar work done better elsewhere. Despite this, the beautiful outback scenery, Nayinggul and Baker’s performances and Marika as Dharrpa’s assertion of, “MY country,” will resonate with audiences well after the closing credits have rolled.