Director Stephen Johnson’s new film High Ground (2020) is a compelling tale that begins with Travis (Simon Baker), a police officer in Northern Australia in 1919, losing control of an operation that results in a massacre of Aboriginal Australians. The sole survivor is a young boy name Gutjuk, who Travis leaves with a mission – and he quits in disgust. He finds himself forced back into service twelve years later to hunt down Gutjuk’s uncle, Baywara…and Travis recruits Gutjuk’s assistance to help him track his target. It’s this path that leads to revelations and role reversals.
Gutjuk is played by newcomer Jacob Junior Nayinggul. His performance is crucial for the film to really resonate on any kind of emotional level. There is some built-in empathy for the character given the opening sequence that precedes the massacre, portraying a young Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr) learning about hunting and the types of spears used. However, that kind of automatic empathy will only get the film so far, and it falls on Nayinggul to win the audience over. To me, he is able to do it – and this really helped carry me on his journey into finding where he fits in after being taken from his people and raised by the mission. He is essentially a man without a land, and learning who he is along with him through this journey is rewarding.
Baker’s performance also helps elevate this film to something just above a passable Australian Western. Travis carries a lot of weight on his shoulders from his time as a sniper in World War I, and with his failure regarding Gutjuk’s tribe. He definitely sees some level of redemption possible with Gutjuk. Their exchanges are some of the more memorable ones in the film..the first time he teaches Gutjuk how to fire the sniper rifle really helps to cement the paternal relationship between the characters that pays off a few times throughout the film in different ways.
High Ground (2020) isn’t a Must See movie. However, if you’re a fan of westerns or learning about cultures not often represented in cinema, it is certainly worth your time. The landscapes alone are quite gorgeous, and there is enough character and story to make it an engaging experience. High Ground earns the Decent Watch rating.