Smell Like Screen Spirit
November 5, 2013
Director: Ivan Sen
Writer: Ivan Sen
Starring: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Jack Thompson, Ryan Kwanten, Tony Barry, David Field, Damian Walshe-Howling, Tasma Walton, Zoe Carides
I’ve had limited exposure to Australian cinema but Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road is the second Australian film I’ve had the good fortune of stumbling across in a film festival (the other being The Hunter) that left me floored. While in terms of the basic story, this is not much more than a standard slow-burn police procedural, execution is everything. And Sen and his cast and crew execute on a whole other level than Hollywood is seemingly capable of reaching. Or maybe, with its slow pacing and smart storytelling, it’s a level that Hollywood knows that the average American moviegoer is incapable of appreciating.
Aaron Pederson is Steve-McQueen-level-stunning as Indigenous detective Jay Swan, a somber man of few words, who ruffles feathers among the majority-white police force and in the mixed Indigenous and white rural Australian community as he investigates the mysterious murder of an Indigenous teenage girl. His investigation is hampered by a lack of trust from the Indigenous community and from stonewalling from within the police force, particularly from a corrupt narcotics officer played by Hugo Weaving, but Swan eventually uncovers an ugly, tangled web of drug dealing, prostitution and racism.
As well as writing and directing, Sen also shot the film, and it is potently awash in the strikingly isolated look and feel of a barren, southwestern gothic, feeling every bit as much a modern Texas western as an Australian outback crime thriller. In its own way, the film looks every bit as tough and striking as the Coen Brothers’ Marfa-shot No Country for Old Men. Slowly paced and filled with understated performances, the film is nonetheless infused with a potent sense of tension, which is released in one of the most striking and cringe-inducing shoot-out scenes in recent memory.