Plaudits are coming thick and fast for Samson and Delilah, the debut feature from indigenous filmmaker Warwick Thornton. And they are fundamentally deserved. Thornton’s film about the relationship between two teenagers who live in an isolated settlement in central Australia is a subtly powerful work, one that has an abiding sense of setting and character.
There’s a danger that greatness via rabid acclaim could marginalise the movie in certain ways, so it’s important to distinguish just what makes the picture the best Australian release of recent years. The opening shot sets the tone: a teenage boy stirs to something resembling consciousness, rousing in slow motion as a chirpy country song plays before he inhales deeply from a container of petrol. Thornton is a social realist, but he’s more than willing to use the medium to accentuate his take on the story – he’s able to both show the everyday realities for Samson (Rowan McNamara) and heighten the unexpected sensation for the audience with the manipulation of sound and image.
That combination is at the heart of Samson and Delilah, and more broadly it’s represented in the film’s simple but affecting plot. The picture has an intrinsic sweetness, a genuine belief in the power of an individual’s love, but it is offset by a brutal worldview. Terrible things happen to both Samson and Delilah (Marissa Gibson), things both undeserved and unaccounted for, but it’s the demands made on them that render the underlying emotions so strong.
A series of calmly authoritative framing shots position the protagonists in their outback community. Ramshackle homes don’t have doors and windows, vehicle carcasses and rubbish dot the landscape. Their depiction is matter of fact, a given; Thornton wants to outline the world his characters live in, not make an overt point about dispossession and inequality (he does do this, but far more subtly, showing how Delilah and her grandmother make paintings for which they receive a few hundred dollars – later you realise they retail for tens of thousands of dollars).
It is a film of two distinct halves: firstly in the remote settlement, then the underbelly of Alice Springs. Boredom, flies and stillness define the rural location. Samson and Delilah barely speak to anyone, let alone enjoy a conversation with each other, as the former courts the latter. There’s a wry humour to watching the mercurial young man pursue the stoic young woman. Even when Samson stakes a physical claim by moving his mattress into Delilah and Nana’s yard her response is to silently throw it back over the fence.
Thornton understands both laughter and sadness can co-exist, it’s just a question of how they’re balanced. However, once violence intrudes, befalling one character ritualistically before the other seeks out a similar punishment as a moving act of solidarity, they’re forced to flee. In Alice Springs they must live under a bridge, lodging with a garrulous homeless man, Gonzo (Scott Thornton). White Australians brusquely negate them. 'Excuse me," a waitress tells Delilah, 'you need to leave"; her disdain is so complete that she doesn’t even resort to condescension. 'Please don’t exist', she might as well be saying.
Without exposition, Thornton tells his story visually, aided by a skilful sound mix. Even the background noise is indicative: note how the natural sounds of their home are supplanted in Alice Springs by the unrelenting (and prophetic) thump of speeding tyres on the bridge. He keeps such a tight focus that you don’t immediately miss the scenes he doesn’t show us once Samson and Delilah are separated. But the film’s emotional bond, and surreptitious signals of intent, is strong enough to pick up once the two are reunited. As such Warwick Thornton can do better than this in the future, but for now he’s made a wonderfully worthy debut. There will be much noise made about this quiet film, and in this case it’s truly deserved.
Watch 'Samson and Delilah'
Thursday 5 August, 8:30pm on NITV
Friday 6 July, 12:15pm on NITV
Now streaming at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Warwick Thornton
Starring: Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, Scott Thornton