Directed by Stephen Johnson, High Ground follows Travis (Simon Baker), a policeman in northern Australia tasked with supporting a local missionary amongst the Indigenous peoples. Once a sniper in WWI, Travis is meant to maintain control of the operation from above with his bird’s-eye view of the situation. Then, when the operation results in a massacre of an Aboriginal tribe, Travis leaves in disgust. However, years later, Travis is forced back into action as he and mission-raised Gutjuk (Jacob Junior Nayinggul), the only known massacre survivor, must work together to hunt down Baywara, an Aboriginal warrior intent on gaining revenge for their attack years earlier.
Drenched in the intensity of the dry heat of the Outback, High Ground undergirds its storytelling with a bubbling rage. Delving into painful historical practices such as racial injustice and conquest, Johnson pulls few punches regarding the harsh realities of the time. As a result, this is a film that wants to be felt. Unfortunately, despite the complexities of the issues at hand, the script leaves much of the cast little space to build their characters. As a result, High Ground feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, even though it both entertains and challenges.
Though the characters around them may be lacking, High Ground features some wonderful performances from leads Baker and newcomer Nayinggul. As battle-weary Travis, Baker plays his character with a dark edge that never allows him to become too safe for the viewer. Although we follow the film primarily through his perspective, Baker manages to give his character enough nuance for him to never fully take on the name of ‘hero’. (In fact, it could be argued that we only see him as a hero because those around him are so villainous in their motivations and actions.) Even so, it is Nayinggul who ultimately steals the film. For a first-time actor, Nayinggul shows incredible maturity in his performance as he brings out the soul of his young character who wishes to reconnect to his roots and family. As the film’s anchor, the complex relationship between these two actors keeps High Ground compelling, even in its lesser moments.
Ultimately, High Ground is a film about power and control. As the settlers attempt to broaden their territory, their reckless actions reveal their intent to conquer, rather than to partner with the Indigenous peoples. (“You don’t share land,” Moran groans.) Though, while it may begin with the theme of dominating the land, it quickly becomes apparent that this is much more about the power to dominate the people that make it their home. From the opening sequence, Ground establishes that the goal of the white population is to expand their culture and ideas at the expense of tribal cultures. Led by the military and a (largely ineffectual) priest, the primary interest of these settlers is to mould their surroundings into their own image. (Incidentally, this battle for cultural dominance becomes a key character arc for Gutjuk, who struggles to reconcile his indigenous roots with the values of the people who raised him.)
With this in mind, the film also uses Travis to shine a light on the relationship between control and perspective. From his perch as a sniper, Travis sees everything. However, that also makes him distant from it as well. By remaining so far away from the battle, Travis claims less responsibility for its outcome. In doing so, he can show his disdain for the actions of the settlers without ever fully disowning them either. Whereas he argues that his distance gives him control over a situation, it also provides him the chance to ‘wash his hands’ of its outcome as well.
Having said this, his range of view also allows him to see all that’s going on during the skirmish. While he has the opportunity to disavow his involvement, so too does he recognize when wrongdoing is happening and he wants no part of that. As he grows closer to Gutjuk, Travis becomes more deeply invested in the events taking place around him and his perspectives begin to shift. Though his mind is entrenched in a European way of thinking, he starts to see the value of lifestyles other than his own.
With some fascinating conversations surrounding the arrogance of colonialism, there is a lot to like about High Ground. Although it lacks character development from anyone other than its protagonists, the film fully understands what it wants to achieve and does so effectively.
High Ground is available on VOD on Friday, May 14th, 2021.