The special quality of Charlie’s Country is the profound camaraderie shared by its director, Rolf de Heer, and its star, David Gulpilil (Walkabout, The Last Wave). The two have worked together before (The Tracker, Ten Canoes), but the origins of Charlie’s Country are personal to an exceptional degree. In 2011, de Heer learned that Gulpilil had landed in jail; he got in touch with the washed-up performer, and the germ of a story — intrinsically inspired by Gulpilil’s drink-addled life experiences — blossomed.
Co-written by de Heer and Gulpilil, the movie has a bracing (if unsurprising) narrative of societal suppression: Northern Territory dweller Charlie (Gulpilil) finds his roaming Aboriginal lifestyle (driving unregistered cars, hunting with unlicensed weapons) threatened by an increasingly dogmatic local police force. But de Heer’s lack of interest in a streamlined plot couldn’t be clearer: The second shot of the movie, which lasts for over two minutes, simply sits with Gulpilil in his humpy as Charlie looks at a crumpled photograph that de Heer doesn’t even bother to show yet.
Much of Charlie’s Country proceeds in this observational mode, exercising the transformative power of Gulpilil’s face. Whether laughing, crying, mumbling to himself, or projecting a valiant stoicism, Gulpilil — beneath a white beard and a blanket of shaggy hair — commands the screen in close-ups liable to run for minutes at a time.
Surrounding these are mesmerizing montage sequences in which de Heer and editor Tania Nehme cut together snapshots of different communities. From the cyclical drinking scenes (strolls to buy booze, nauseous mornings) to the repetitive prison routine (laundry, awful meals, sleep), de Heer presents Charlie as a wandering man searching for the home that is right for him.