There are genre filmmakers and then there are artists like Douglas Sirk & Rainer Werner Fassbinder who set seemingly generic premises atop simmering socio-political issues. Writer/Director (and also cinematographer, editor and composer for that matter) Ivan Sen is firmly in the latter.
Mystery Road sees Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returning home to the outback after time in the city, and straight into the murder of a young indigenous girl. Getting to the truth of her demise will take Swan to every corner of his home town as the pervasive shadows of the past cast their influence over the dark happenings of the present.
Sen's epic photography captures central Queensland's manufactured, dilapidated suburbia on the precipice of the rugged wilds. Whether it's the mesmerising topographic surveying of the layout of the town or the fiery sunrise against expansive grasslands, Sen sees simultaneous beauty,dangerand ruin in all locales. It's the fluid yet steady framing of APedersen's existentially complex Jay that challenges the misconception that the indigenous populace is feral. The white authority structures are shaking upon his return and in turn he's instantly positioned against his brethren. It's so honestly summarised in a moment where the first two indigenous kids he encounters ask: "Are you a copper? We kill coppers..." [as he makes a gun gesture with his hand]. The murder scene affects him; while the majority of the officers in town are ready to accept the death of this adolescent, who had been prostituting herself to truckers along the highway, as an occupational hazard. This is his entry point down the rabbit hole and into the festering rot beneath the surface of the entire town. There's a palpable barrier between the anglo and indigenous populace who've been forced to integrate when the former mission closed. Sen uses this clash of cultures to manipulate the energy of the entire town.
Sen and star Pedersen have crafted a pitch perfect indigneous noir detective mixed with soul for the modern western (No Country for Old Men, Red Hill). It's finally a role that Pederesen (Water Rats, East West 101, MDA, City Homicide) has been able to truly shine in. The stoicism and resolve that Pedersen's Swan outwardly displays does have its cracks; and it's in those peeks into his soul that he's even more impressive. As he's driving through the maze like streets, his eyes confess his internal turmoil to the open road.
The supporting cast does a phenomenal job. The highlights for this reviewer in the all star Aussie ensemble were Hugo Weaving; whose skill with portraying ambiguity makes his Detective character a particularly illusive entity. Hehas past indiscretions that still influence his approach. Ryan Kwanten is electric as the overtly racist Kangaroo hunter, that's suspect number one in Swan's investigation. This is yet another potent performance for the increasingly incredible performer.
Mystery Road is an unravelling enigma haunted by the spirits of the Australia's indigenous and colonial past. It positions 'civilisation' alongside the outback and it's inescapable ochre stain. It's Australia's answer to No Country for Old Men.
[rating=4] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.