November 22, 2013
Mystery Road is a mysterious cinematic feature from writer-director Ivan Sen. It’s a police crime thriller set in a small Australian town, but it also bears the hallmarks of a classic American Western genre film. The fact that it’s packed with famous and recognizable Aussie actors only enhances its intrigue and appeal.
Aaron Pedersen plays Jay Swan, a detective who’s moved back to his small outback hometown after a period away in the city. Upon his return he’s confronted with a grisly case; a teenage Aboriginal girl has been found murdered by the side of the highway. At first glance it looks like she was killed and dumped by a passing truckie, but on closer inspection, Jay begins to find connections to the victim, the local drug trade, some unsavory locals, the Aboriginal community and his own family.
As he continues digging Jay begins to suspect that his police colleagues know more about this case, and other unsolved murders, than they will admit. Cracking the case begins to overwhelm Jay both professionally and personally, leaving him an outcast in his own town, and putting him in a great deal of danger.
Ivan Sen has been an exciting and independent presence on the Australian filmmaking scene since his 2002 first feature Beneath Clouds. He’s applied his distinctive touch to a series of features, documentaries and shorts, often focused on indigenous issues. What’s really interesting about Mystery Road is the way he’s applied that distinctive touch to two different genres in the one film.
This is a very competent and engaging police procedural. We’re presented with a mystery and Jay works hard to solve it, taking the audience into a dark world where people aren’t as they seem, and poverty and greed exist side by side. Familiar mainstays of the genre, such as the grumpy police boss, the surly would-be-suspects, and the hero’s own bitter and damaged family populate the drama, giving us a solid ground to start from, but he uses his characters in inventive and surprising ways. You might think you know where this crime thriller is taking you, but then it does something unexpected.
Mystery Road is most impressive as a modern Australian Western. Jay is almost an ancestor of Gary Cooper – the only honest and dedicated man in a small town that’s turned its back on evil. This is an outback town with nasty secrets and a hidden past, and Ivan Sen does well to slowly peel back those secrets and reveal the truth.
It’s also been starkly filmed, with the locations around Winton looking both majestic and harsh. It’s the perfect location for this unsettling drama, and the sunrise and sunset shots are outstanding and create a powerful atmosphere.
Aaron Pedersen has a real leading man presence as Jay. He handles a rifle with believable skill, and his earnest, brooding qualities are well delivered. He’s surrounded by a veritable who’s who of Aussie acting including Hugo Weaving, Tony Barry, Robert Mammone, Jack Thompson, Ryan Kwanten, Roy Billing, David Field, Tasma Walton, Bruce Spence and Zoe Carides. To get a cast of that calibre to travel to outback Queensland for location filming is a testament to the quality of the script and the reputation of its writer-director.
Mystery Road may follow some conventions of the crime thriller, but it definitely walks to its own beat. There is a slow pacing to the drama that won’t be to everyone’s liking, but I thought it worked really well, giving the audience time to get to know these characters and fully enter their world. It makes the surprises at the end even more exciting.
And it’s not a film that looks for easy answers. It’s happy to leave a sense of mystery to its proceedings and have you do some of the detective work yourself.