October 18, 2013
“When you’re dealing with a wider demographic, you do have to deliver elements that people are used to seeing,” says director Ivan Sen. “I’m happy to do that, but I just want to do it with extreme style and extreme beauty.” He aces that goal with Mystery Road. Easily one of the best Australian films of the year, the outback crime story boasts the iconic scope of a western with indie intimacy and character development.
Sen won acclaim for Beneath Clouds and Toomelah, both of which explored the issues faced by rural Indigenous communities like those he grew up in. Mystery Road is a genre movie aimed at – and deserving of – an audience beyond the arthouse, but it’s still a very personal vision. Sen not only wrote and directed the film, but was responsible for the gorgeous cinematography, the editing and the score.
“People talk about how you’re supposed to have this person to do this and this person to do that; that’s all from conditioning, and it’s largely from the Hollywood model. I’m just coming from an organic, natural process, where when I first got the camera, it was just me, and I was just making intimate documentaries.”
Mystery Road, which premiered at the Sydney film festival in June, opened on Thursday. In a move worthy of the story’s self-reliant protagonist, Sen and producer David Jowsey are distributing the film themselves via their company Dark Matter. If successful, it could signal a more independent future for Australian filmmakers. “We’re excited about being in control, because we care about the film. Distributors are businesspeople; they’re money people.”
The movie tells the story of Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), a tough Indigenous detective, recently returned to his outback hometown, assigned to investigate the murder of a local girl. As he makes the rounds of the sleepy but troubled community, Jay unravels a web of intrigue and drug crime endangering at-risk Aboriginal youth, including his own daughter.
It’s a commanding performance from Pedersen (star of SBS’s The Circuit), who appears in nearly every scene, marked by quiet fury and laconic dry humour. A terrific supporting cast includes Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten and Jack Thompson.
The mythology of the western looms large over Australian fiction, from 19th century bushranger ballads to postmodern mashups such as Mad Max. Mystery Road makes a logical progression by reworking the genre’s antipodean strands to tell an Indigenous story. In Sen’s confident hands, the white hat-clad, rifle-toting Indigenous hero walking tall across an outback landscape is natural and timeless, as if this is what the western was waiting for all along.
“As a genre film, I was looking at it as a stepping stone to a more commercial approach,” Sen says. “But at the same time it does have a very social and political perspective.”
Sen’s screenplay explicitly confronts the traditional stereotype of the Aboriginal “black tracker”, the classic in-between figure of colonial history. Jay is resented by his own community as a sellout (a boy tells him, “We shoot coppers, bro”) and rejected by the white power structure. Yet he finds strength in his outcast status to defend his family and community. It’s a racially charged take on the aloof western gunslinger.
The film’s biggest influence was No Country for Old Men, says Sen – apparent in the splendid interplay between the long desert shadows cast by the film’s genre myth-making and the gritty human detail in the sparse dialogue and slow-burn storytelling.
The economic disparity and bad blood that haunt outback communities provide an all-too-plausible basis for the film’s crime story. Indeed the subject matter is highly personal for Sen; three of his female relatives were the victims of unsolved murders, including a cousin who was found dead under a roadway, much like the teenage victim in the film. There is the sense that Sen is exorcising demons here. “All of the details come from reality,” he says. “And reality is much darker than what is relayed in the film. I could have gone a lot further with it.”
Sen tried to find an equilibrium between social impact and entertainment. “The balance is something that you keep playing with until you stop editing the film – pulling back the political discussion because you feel like it’s taking over the genre structure.
“I really consciously wanted to allow an audience to have these [genre] elements but to not have that forced [Hollywood] manipulation,” he says. “Having that space, and very little music, and a bit of time to really walk in the shoes of the character – something we don’t really get to do a lot of in genre territory.”