October 17, 2013
Mystery Road takes place, for a stretch, on its titular strip of dirt track; and though its murder-mystery procedural is largely set on open expanses of outback highway, the film has a more symbolically-named totem lurking nearby: Massacre Creek. At first, that piece of writing – by filmmaker Ivan Sen, one of local cinema’s more interesting artists – seems heavy-handed, until you stop to think that there probably is a real Massacre Creek out there, somewhere; a snaking trickle in the midst of some thankless red-dirt expanse, blithely naming the bloodshed that’s barely buried in Australia’s colonialist history.
Sen’s story is set at some unnamed rural outpost, a modern-day site of the same age-old cultural clash; in which the rusted frames of decaying cars dot the desert like old skeletons and the howl of wild dogs echoes day and night. Mystery Roademploys creaky tropes of genre – the cop returning to the town they left behind; the small-town murder investigation at the end-of-the-world; the policier’s run of bribed informers and crooked-cop revelations – with an auteurist eye (and, in a recurring overhead device, the eye-of-god) and a social-political spirit (the less-than-urgent investigations of dead black girls yet another cultural shame of life on a stolen continent). Tales of savages lives on savage lands aren’t new to Australian cinema – when a character pronounces “welcome to hell,” the line feels pre-worn – nor are portraits of self-destructive aboriginal communities and deep-seated rural racism (“they deserve everything they get”).
But Sen’s great dramatic device is merely making his investigating detective a black man (Aaron Pedersen). It sounds simple, but it’s infinitely complex, and situates the audience not on either side of the divide, but in the middle of the conflict. “We usually shoot black fellas,” glowers Ryan Kwanten, relishing a villainous turn as a roo-shootin’ landowner’s-son guarding his property with a sneer; “we kill coppers, bro,” pronounces one indigenous delinquent, with an air of both innocence and menace, a reflective echo from the other side. Pedersen is a man between worlds: an upwardly-mobile turncoat whose job requires locking up his own, but who is, in the greater scheme of things, powerless; a cuckolded dick whose authority only goes as far as whatever white man’s standing behind him.
As Pedersen progresses through this procedural, each witness is less threatened, more dismissive, more defensive than the last; his foiled, failed attempts to ‘do good’ lingering broadly symbolic. “Do you think you can really make a difference in this place?” he’s asked, mockingly, and the question hits home, for both character and audience: his failure our failure. Mystery Road may bow down to genre convention and end things with an everyone-who-deserves-it-gets-killed shootout, but there’s no sense that anything has been solved, that a difference has really been made. The racial tension here is dramatised, but the malaise is real: the kids on the mission, bereft of hope, keen to obliterate reality with “drugs and grog”; the powers-that-be happy to maintain the status-quo. It’s a film set in a perpetual warzone, where there’s no hope for a peace-process.