dir: Warwick Thornton
Samson and Delilah is unlike any other film, Australian or otherwise, in its depiction of Aboriginal characters or an Australian story. It is unflinching, and brutal, and beautiful. It might take its name from the biblical story, but this tale is far more real, current, tragic and yet hopeful in its ultimate realisation.
It is not an enjoyable flick. There isn’t much dialogue. It’s as meticulously crafted as any work of art you’re likely to ever see, but its purpose isn’t to entertain. Though there is occasional humour to leaven the grim circumstances of these lives, it remains true to the characters and the reality of their situation. A situation not exclusive to the characters in this film.
It’s not easy going, not by any stretch. But then, why should it be?
In an isolated community in the Northern Territory, Samson (Rowan McNamara) wakes up, sniffs petrol for a while, rubs his head then gets up and wanders around. He has nothing to do all day. The isolated community is so small that it probably consists of about 5 shacks, a shack church and a shop. Heat vibrates off everything. A communal phone rings and rings, but no-one answers it.
Music is what wakes Samson up each morning. His brother (Matthew Gibson) and his terrible band play the same song all day long. They play it all day long every goddamn day. The repetition, like the oppressive heat, is maddening but reassuring in its permanence. The phone keeps ringing unanswered.
Delilah (Marissa Gibson) wakes up each day, pushing aside the towels and textiles that serve as blankets, and then wakes up her nanna, whom she feeds medicine to. Delilah is young, Nanna is very old. They have, like Samson, their daily ritual too. They spend half their day producing art, the other half with Nanna praying in the chapel.
Samson doesn’t do much, but he does do a bit to annoy Delilah and get her attention. He never speaks, but he communicates constantly. Then he goes to sleep after some deep sniffs from the petrol tin.
The next day repeats, with minor variations. The day after repeats again, with minor variations. Then everything changes forever.
It’s tempting to joke about the opening half hour of the film as being some kind of aboriginal take on Groundhog Day, but it serves a greater purpose without having to do anything with that film at all. They live grim, stunted lives where every day is like every other until terrible things happen to jar the wheels from their tracks.
In contrast to the temptation to depict tribal life as noble and life affirming and one with nature and all that crap, there’s the opposite temptation to aesthetisise squalor. This film avoids the dual trap. It is squalor, but this is a real community too, and these people are living lives of anything but quiet desperation in a forbidding landscape that we are all too familiar with and all too happy to pretend is too far away from our cities to matter. Well, the filmmakers know this, which is why they decide to bring Samson and Delilah to the city to show us just how out of time and place they truly are.
Samson is not a bad kid, but he is addicted to petrol sniffing. His silent courting of Delilah combines resourcefulness and stubbornness, determination but not demands. She, in turn, sees him as being little better than any of the other no-hopers that constitute the sum and total of the men in the community, in their ‘mob’, but starts to warm to him in time.
Of course there aren’t enough indignities and torments to inflict upon the two kids in their neighbourhood, so when something tragic occurs, they end up in Darwin, living an even bleaker, violent and damned existence than they did back in the back of beyond.
Even with the obvious apparent link to the Old Testament story, it would be a mistake to assume this story approximates a retelling of the classic tragedy. About the only two elements in common are the names of the main characters, and the image of the cutting of hair. Here, however, the two times where hair is cut, it is not to symbolise the taking of someone’s strength, but to indicate mourning and respect for the dead.
Samson is funny, vulnerable and explosive in his violence, but not, as I had feared, toward Delilah. He doesn’t need to be, because the film provides a long list of violence at the hands of others to inflict it upon her instead. In contrast to the biblical tale, the trials and tribulations that ancient Samson faced, and probably Job from the Book of Job fame too, are all endured instead by Delilah.
And yet she, too, like the biblical heroes of old, never loses her faith, no matter how brutal life becomes.
She, ultimately, is the one with the superhuman strength; the strength to keep going despite the sheer abundance of reasons given why she should give up and disappear into the haze of brain damaging fumes Samson falls further and further into. It is an oblivion that seems all too tempting and all too relatable.
Almost the hardest scene to watch involves Delilah shyly, at first, trying to sell an artwork to terrified café customers. The second time she is further away from caring, and it’s hard not to recognise oneself in the café customers, as opposed to the protagonist.
Don’t mistake this film for social work on a cinematic scale, whose purpose is to guilt us into thinking we should do more for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters in between eating pâté, spilling sugar substitutes into our lattes and quaffing chardonnay and chattering inanely to each other. These lives aren’t amplifications or exaggerations; their circumstances aren’t unique or rare; their story isn’t easily explained, contained, rationalised or summarised. And this doesn’t have some monstrous Anglo-Saxon stand-in representing Stolen Generations this, Evils of Colonialism that, Refusal to say Sorry, Howard Government-era Intervention the other. None of that shit is necessary, and none of that shit would have worked in this story. About the only expression we see from ‘mainstream’ Australia towards these kids is pained indifference. And that’s as it should be, because as the film argues, much of the ‘solution’ is in their hands. In the hands of women like Delilah.
I had little hope for these kids, and even in that the film surprised me, giving us a glimmer of mercy in order to believe that maybe there is a life to be eked out beyond the misery of their township, or the depraved indifference of the city. I’m not in a position to know or even entertain ideas: I’m neither that smart nor that dumb to be able to come up with solutions, or to think that my solutions could be worth more than a pinch of shit. But it’s a credit to the film that it finds some kind of state of grace for our young lovers.
The performances are downplayed, low on dialogue but highly expressive without being mannered or coming across as false. The cinematography is amazing without giving us a sequence of postcard shots or of peddling some bullshit tourism brochure ambience to pretend living in these areas is anything but the grind that it must be. There are some truly amazing shots, but even beyond these shots, the most heartbreaking of which is one where Samson is inhaling fumes under the bridge, with the light dimming and dimming until it seems like it’s faded to black, but a glimmer remains, just a glimmer. The sound is where the film really shines as a masterful work of art. Whether it’s the use of sound design and music at the community, or the sound of cars passing over a bridge, or the harsh bird calls, or the fading of coherence when deeply faded by petrol fumes, it amazed me how well the whole film had been crafted.
It’s an amazing film, and it deserves to be seen by more people than just busloads of school kids forced to watch it by their teachers, or by inner city types (like me) who tear up at the miseries depicted on film, but reel away in disgust whenever they’re badgered for some spare change. Samson and Delilah is beyond that. It’s art, cinematic, storytelling art, in its purest form, and I love that it got made and I love that I was lucky enough to see it.
9 emphatic ways in which films as good as Samson and Delilah are a hearty Fuck You to the likes of Baz Luhrmann out of 10
“You shouldn’t do that shit, it'll fuck up your brain.” Samson and Delilah.