The first feature by cinematographer Warwick Thornton, Samson And Delilah isn’t a silent movie, but it rarely resorts to dialogue when images will do the trick. The principal characters, both young aborigines from a tiny village in the Australian desert, rarely speak to each other for reasons that only emerge late in the film, and the only person with much to say is a raving drunk who lives under an overpass. (The latter, whom Thornton describes as “mad as a cut snake,” is played by and based on the director’s brother, Scott, who was cast with the proviso that he go to rehab first.) Apart from a few poignant songs, the score is mostly confined to a syncopated thump that registers less as music than a periodic pressing-forward.
Pitched somewhere between City Of God and the Dardenne brothers, Samson And Delilah is unsparing in its brutal vision of the world. Rowan McNamara, whose curly mop turns to gold at its tips, is a sullen and impetuous boy who huffs gasoline and starts fights to relieve the boredom of his existence. When Marissa Gibson, a quiet girl who lives with her grandmother, fails to take notice of him, he waits until she walks past and then whips a stone at her back. Later, both are beaten with sticks, he for clobbering a man who refused to let him play his guitar, she for allowing (so to speak) her grandmother to die.
Matters only get worse when they escape to the town of Alice Springs. Thornton underplays the most harrowing sequences, focusing the camera on the foreground while dire events play out in the back, as if to banish the specter of miserablism. He’s not alienated from his characters, but keeps a respectful distance, a technique that also allows their surroundings to speak where his untrained actors might not.
Although Thornton appears sensitive to the details of this world, he’s not insistent about using its darker qualities as proof of its verisimilitude; he lets it seep in rather than shoving audiences’ noses in it. The movie’s beauty, too, creeps up. The simplicity of its vision reveals itself gradually. Viewers may not realize how far they’ve been pulled in until the movie ends, and they might feel a sense of loss that it can’t keep going just a little while longer.