Pretty Clever Films
October 18, 2013
Australian Director Ivan Sen brought his new film, Mystery Road, to TIFF this past September, and though it was on my list, I simply didn’t get to it. So when I saw that it was opening the 2013 imagineNATIVE festival last night, I jumped at the opportunity to screen it. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Mystery Road stars Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan, a police detective who has recently moved back to his home community in the Australian Outback. Given his first murder case, he’s out to solve the mysterious death of a young Aboriginal girl. Jay’s investigation is both helped and hampered by his being Aboriginal himself, seen as an outsider or traitor in his own community, and as suspicious by the other townspeople.
From the beginning of the case, Jay is confronted by attitudes ranging from dismissive to downright hostile. At the murder scene itself, his fellow police officers carelessly trample evidence, and provide little support. Potential witnesses offer up quick I-didn’t-see-anythings. And the murdered girl’s own neighbours have trouble remembering the last time they saw her. Slowly, carefully, Jay works the case, following some strange, seemingly random leads into dangerous places. The film doesn’t offer up any earth-shattering plot twists, but it’s a thoroughly satisfying, slowly built crime mystery.
It’s a strong performance from Aaron Pedersen, restrained and stoic, who says more with a look and two words on camera than others can with a Shakespearean soliloquy. Hugo Weaving is fantastic, as always, playing an ambiguous cop – you’re just not sure which side of the law he’s on. It was also wonderful to see young Daniel Conners (from Sen’s Toomelah) have a cameo as a local kid with a gun fetish who finds the murdered girl’s cell phone.
Visually, Sen has produced another stunning work, from the terrific overhead shots revealing the town’s roads and residential plots in interesting lines and grids, to the landscape shots of the barren Outback. The light is truly gorgeous, Sen shooting as much at dusk as he does in daylight, and gives us big, beautiful skies that dominate the frame. Sound is another noticeable element. I don’t recall any music used to artificially ratchet up the tension, but I really noticed the sounds of Jay’s Outback – rustling of the dry grasses, insects, wild dogs howling. An incredible contrast to the overly loud and jarring sounds of the town, of supposed civilization: gun shots, car tires spraying gravel, filing cabinet drawers slamming shut. Fantastic atmosphere.
During the post-screening Q&A, Sen admitted this was a real attempt on his part to make a genre film, something that would have wider appeal, and take Aboriginal themes and stories to a larger audience. He succeeds. On the face of it, Mystery Road is simply an excellent crime drama, full of fascinating characters, and a wonderfully slow-built suspense. But it has an awful lot more going on, Sen effectively revealing a great deal about the Aboriginal experience with more subtle layers of background and meaning.