The Arts Desk
October 12, 2013
Awful crimes are being committed in an Australian outback town: young girls murdered, and dumped in culverts. But what makes it worse for Aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), newly returned to his small hometown from the city, is the barely coded and bare-faced racism he encounters, from his cop colleagues most of all; the sense that these girls, because they’re Aboriginal too, don’t matter. They’re just expendable pawns in bigger, evil games being played out in eerie countryside, and the parched streets of an Aboriginal part of town which looks like it’s been left in the sun to die.
Ivan Sen’s crime film builds its quietly angry grip on Pederson’s charismatic and watchful performance, which mixes masculine strength, loneliness and sheathed fury. He has a cowboy’s white hat and swagger. But as he doggedly knocks on thin doors in his old community, he could be Philip Marlowe too, a knight walking down mean streets.
Director Sen, previously known for social realist films, and writer, cinematographer, editor and composer here too, shows masterful command of genre. He frames the action in dramatic big country John Ford would envy, and peoples the frame with sharply drawn eccentrics, from Jack Thompson’s dog-mourning recluse to Hugo Weaving’s double-talking detective. Mystery Road has the evil, epic sweep of LA Confidential, but a grimmer grasp on reality, burning a long trail of TNT to a final, point-blank showdown.
The LFF screening I intended was made more memorable by the iconic Australianactor Jack Thompson’s Q&A afterwards. He explained the real crimes his Aboriginal writer-director was thinking of; why his film repeatedly passes a place called Massacre Creek, an unexceptional sort of name in Australia marking, Thompson said, “where we set out to eliminate these people.” Most powerfully, someone from the town where Mystery Road is set stood up to tell “Jack” (the right familiarity for a man every Australian has grown up watching) that he had Aboriginal schoolmates. Then one day, he didn’t. The Stolen Generation, spirited away. “Who are the wild dogs?” Thompson asked, of animals repeatedly mentioned but never seen in Mystery Road. “The wild dogs are us.”