Friday, October 8, 2010

Review: Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009)

Warwick Thornton's debut feature film is a raw, uncompromising and tragic example of outback neorealism. Set in a small rural indigenous town near Alice Springs we are first introduced into the mundane daily routines of two of the teenagers. Their world, despite being surrounded by seemingly endless terrain, is confined. Samson (Rowan McNamara) sleepily wakes up from his dusty mattress, scratches his mattered hair and stretches, and then sniffs long and deep from a can of petrol. He then walks outside and grabs his brothers' electric guitar, strumming loud and out of tune, before he his routinely roused and told to shove off. He then spends the rest of the day wandering the town kicking at the dust, and obsessively following around a local girl, Delilah (Marissa Gibson), as she takes care of her ailing grandmother. Delilah is a very capable young girl who is quite content with her routine of escorting her gran in the wheelchair to visit the local health clinic, watching her paint aboriginal art and then cooking her dinner (when it's available). She finds solace from her struggle by listening to a tape of Latin music alone in the community car, while Samson pines for the attention of Delilah, while retiring to his room to sniff into his can. When a fit of rage leads to Samson breaking his brother's guitar and suffering the subsequent bashing, he decides to steal the community car and escape. He takes Delilah with him while she is sleeping, also facing the brunt of a beating by the female elders, who blame her neglect of her grandmother being the cause of her death.

The pair, who have formed an awkward bond in the first half of the film, find themselves taking care of one another as they are forced to shelter under a bridge and scrounge for supplies. They find comfort in one another as they both have been ostracized as irresponsible misfits. They meet an old alcoholic homeless man, named Gonzo (who is played by Thornton's brother) who's positive spin on his situation should have been an inspiration to the pair, but ultimately isn't. He sympathizes with them and gives them food and water. As Samson's petrol addiction steadily worsens, and he becomes incomprehensible to reality, Delilah steals some paint supplies and tries to sell a painting for money. In two separate instances, Samson is so high from substance abuse that he fails to realize, just metres behind him, Delilah's involvement in a serious incident. Delilah is first abducted by a group of white teenagers, thrown into a car and raped/beaten, and is later hit by a car and believed to be dead. She returns to Samson from hospital, with Samson's brother, to take him back to town. They are once again met with hostility from the folk of the town because of the theft of the vehicle, so Delilah takes Samson to a secluded residence further into the coutry, and begins his rehabilitation, which looks bleak.

Thornton has created quite an important political film here that raises awareness about an exploited and ignored Aboriginal community, and bringing the stories of these troubled youngsters to a wider audience. It has been hailed by critics worldwide as a phenomenon, winning the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Best First Feature Film, and was the Australian representative at the 2009 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. The performances of the two leads are great and Thornton's camera offers a stifling and unsettling realism that beautifully captures the harsh, rural environment, but the lack of dialogue becomes increasingly frustrating. Samson suffers from a bad stutter, which we discover quite late in the film, explaining his refrain from speaking. But Delilah's choice not to speak could only be due to her grief at the death of her grandmother. Their actions work like a pantomime, demonstrating, to some extent, their feelings and emotions to one another. But never are we really convinced that Delilah loves him. She is at first irritated by his presence and then just seems to follow him because she has no other choice. When she begins to feel sorry for him and frustrated by their situation, she decides to help him. But the film features some tender moments between the pair that offers hope for each other, when all seems lost. I found that we are so removed from the characters that we find it very difficult to relate to them. We have no idea whether their initial troubles are the fault of society, or whether they are self inflicted, and this is a fault. It is a brief but uncompromising insight into a demanding present, and the horrific battles some people face, and it really is exquisite and tragic viewing. Samson and Delilah is an iconic Australian film, and certainly a very impressive low-budget debut from Thornton. I watched it because I felt I should, and I was moved, but I still feel a lot of it's praise is somewhat unwarranted.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars


  1. It is great he is raising awareness of these issues, but at the same time, when you are making a film you need to be aware of your audience and to make the film accessible. It sounds like quite a frustrating film to sit through.

  2. If it weren't so tragic and realistic, and content with documenting the painfully unfortunate existence of these characters, it would become boring i think. But there are some truly shocking moments and it is intriguing enough throughout to still require your attention. But i found it difficult to relate to the characters because it was hard to define their emotions due to the lack of dialogue, and i'd define it to be more a circumstantial companionship through hardship than a 'love story'. But, anyway! Thanks for reading, and the comment.