Mystery Road is the latest feature from Ivan Sen – who not only writes and directs, but photographs, edits and composes too (Sen’s previous film Toomelah screened in the Un Certain Regard at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival). The story follows an indigenous detective who on return to his hometown finds himself the sole investigator into the death of a young girl. In this gripping, cinematic, well-acted and admirably patiently-crafted police procedural a harrowing mystery collides with national prejudice. This provocative contemporary western depicts the crime and corruption that continues to pollute small isolated towns of outback Australia.
Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returns to his Western Queensland country hometown after a stint in the ‘big smoke’, headlong into a case involving a murdered indigenous girl. Wild dogs, heard in the vicinity at the time, and rumours of a suspected drug ring become just some of the primary clues Jay follows to every corner of the town leading to the unveiling of further disconcerting operations. He suppresses the prevalent resentment he faces as he investigates – both from the distrusting indigenous community, who have all-but ostracized him, and the uncooperative white folk – as well as dealing with a contemptuous and apparently lackadaisical local police force who he is reluctant to entrust. Surrounded by unforgiving, dwarfing nature, the isolation results in the town becoming a breeding ground for criminal enterprises, and the bored and disillusioned youth find themselves easily exploited. As we watch this determined man try to win back his identity and credibility within his former community and prove that he has the skills the make a difference, the suspense begins to mount.
The case is a slow burn and evolves naturally - and one can argue gets a little wayward - but considering Jay is the lone investigator navigating this sparse, hostile territory, he can only follow the leads he discovers and Sen takes no shortcuts in his script. Police investigations are rarely straightforward but Jay is clearly a competent and organized detective. Jay uncovers ties to a prostitution racket involving young local girls - the victim was involved, and perhaps his teenage daughter too - with the truckers who pass through, and prospering drug labs. The case hits close to home, and while Jay seeks justice, he realizes his estranged daughter and her wasteful mother need attention and protection too.
The dusty, ochre-tinted landscape is captured strikingly by Sen's camera, and he is very interested in surveying the town from an aerial perspective. Jay is made to appear trapped in maze, a claustrophobic hotbed of secrets set to combust if the wrong stone is overturned. But how much do the local police know, and are they turning a blind eye to this illegal profiteering? Are they involved? Jay seeks justice, but finds that only observant old-timers and an excitable forensic specialist supply him useful intelligence.
The distinguished cast is fantastic; Aaron Pedersen is never taken out of the story, and his blend of professionalism, suppressed pain and frustration, and levelheaded consideration of the past makes him a character we respect. He is weathering the brooding atmosphere and actively pursing this case. Though he is making headway, the total truth continues to elude him. Hugo Weaving, as a shady denim-attired detective named Johnno, Ryan Kwanten, in an against-type role as a racist sharpshooter of kangaroos, Tasma Walton, as Jay’s oft-inebriated ex-wife, and David Field, whose lone sequence as a tight-lipped contemptuous landowner lingers, are the pick of the fine supports.
I have to admit the sole investigator crime procedural is an attractive genre for me personally. But watching one that is so culturally specific, which addresses a number of issues plaguing Australian lower class outback dwellers - drugs, alcoholism, gambling, youth dysfunction and an unchecked gun culture - and the corrupt white police force overseeing it all, made it all the more fascinating. I remained engrossed throughout, stunned by how the terrain was photographed, the understated score, the brewing tension that sneaks up on you, and how the pieces of the mystery gradually are assembled as the empowered Jay seeks to make his worthy intentions clear. The well-choreographed final face-off offered up something completely unexpected, a suitable culmination that is sure to reward a patient viewer.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Released October 17 2013
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.