Director: Warwick Thornton
Stars: Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson, Mitjili Napanangka Gibson, Scott Thornton
Warwick Thornton’s period Western Sweet Country is rolling into Australian cinemas on a wave of fairly unanimous acclaim (not quite Paddington 2 unanimous acclaim, but widespread nonetheless) following a successful festival streak in 2017. Thus it’s timely to revisit Samson & Delilah, the 2009 film which saw Thornton graduate from shorts to features and announced him as a vital Indigenous Australian filmmaker of the same calibre as contemporaries Rachel Perkins and Ivan Sen.
Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) are teenagers living in a remote Indigenous community in the Northern Territory. Samson inhales petroleum, struggles to play his brother’s guitar, and crushes on Delilah. Delilah serves as primary caregiver to her grandmother, and while she responds coolly to Samson’s affections she’s not entirely indifferent. Their days and daily rituals are largely identical and listless, but following Delilah’s grandmother’s death the pair of outcasts hit the road together and travel to Alice Springs, where they grapple with homelessness, social ostracization, and addiction.
Beauty can be wrung from tragedy or tragic circumstances, as seen from Shakespeare’s finest works through to most things Ingmar Bergman ever pointed a camera at. Writer-director-cinematographer Thornton and company wring beauty from Samson and Delilah’s tragic circumstances. From its opening scene of Samson waking and inhaling fumes from the tin by his bedside, Charley Pride playing on the radio in the background and morning sun creeping through the cracks in the wall, a tragic beauty looms over Samson & Delilah in images and moments of monotony, rejection, dejection, and defeat, but also solidarity, companionship, and love. The film is pervaded by its director and crew’s deeply felt empathy for its subjects, and this testifies to the evolution of Indigenous Australian stories on film that’s come with bestowing the means to tell these stories to Indigenous directors. While older titles from white filmmakers like, say, The Fringe Dwellers or Manganinnie – both reviewed previously on Down Under Flix and both excellent (see here and here) – were undeniably sympathetic, they nonetheless lacked a certain perspective and immediacy of identification, no matter how sincere their intentions. In contrast, Samson & Delilah doesn’t simply depict the trials faced by many Indigenous Australians with liberal humanist sympathy; there’s a gravity and authenticity here that makes their pains palpable.
Delilah’s grandmother in the film is presented as a churchgoer, and there are overt Biblical parallels (but also digressions) in the film’s title and naming of characters. Like the Biblical Samson, the film’s Samson can’t quite get his act together, prioritising immediate vice and escape over higher purpose. The onscreen Delilah, however, differs from her Biblical namesake. Where the Bible’s Delilah is a traitor and temptress whose actions initiate Samson’s fall, this Delilah is Samson’s saviour. She’s also the more resilient of the titular couple, suffering the greatest trials (much of them, mercifully, offscreen) but ultimately enduring and helping to elevate Samson above his addictions. On the subject of parallels, it’s also hard not to compare Samson & Delilah to an earlier trailblazing movie from an Indigenous Australian director about two Indigenous teens of the opposite sex, Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds (reviewed here). Like Sen, Thornton cast two young non-actors in his leads, both of whom deliver terrific, at times exquisite, and oft-non-verbal performances (performances which, like those in Beneath Clouds, represent lighting in a bottle, given that neither McNamara nor Gibson, nor Sen’s earlier stars Danielle Hall and Damian Pitt – who died tragically young in a car crash – ever appeared on film or television again). Where Beneath Clouds’ young protagonists are brief travel companions who forge a fleeting but intense bond of friendship, Samson and Delilah form a romantic coupling, even if the film ignores most of the typical signifiers of onscreen romance accumulated over a century plus of rom-coms and weepies. The film’s promotional tagline – “True love” – and its indifference to the stock traits of onscreen romance hint at a bond deeper and more complex than romantic movie cliches can convey; indeed, one deeper than words, given how little Samson and Delilah speak to each other.
While my review – and indeed most plot synopses – of Samson & Delilah make the film sound overwhelmingly dark, Thornton’s film is ultimately optimistic, with its protagonists achieving a version of domesticity together. I’m aware this statement skirts spoiler territory, but I’ve heard far too many people say they’ve avoided watching the film because it sounds too depressing. Samson & Delilah is bleak at times – particularly in its unflattering depiction of white Australia’s indifference, and rightly so – and this positive denouement doesn’t necessarily spell happily ever after for its protagonists (McNamara’s subsequent run-ins with the law offscreen are, sadly, indicative of the challenges faced by rural Indigenous youth like Samson). But Thornton loves and rewards his characters for the hardships they endure (with viewers also reaping the benefit), providing them with respite and contentment, if only temporary.
Samson & Delilah is an arresting start to the viewing and reviewing year on Down Under Flix. If I see five films as good over the course of this year, it’s going to be a special year…
Next time: Cherie Nowlan’s Thank God He Met Lizzie (1997)