October 14, 2013
In a drain by the side of an outback highway, a long-haul truck driver makes a gruesome discovery: the body of a teenage Aboriginal girl, her throat slit ear to ear. It’s a haunting beginning to a mesmerising film, one that blends the best elements of the lone-wolf western, the hardboiled film noir, and the slow-burn dramatic thriller, and firmly establishes writer, director, cinematographer, editor and composer, Ivan Sen, as one of the foremost auteurs working in contemporary Australian cinema.
Those who have seen Sen’s earlier films, Beneath Clouds and Toomelah, will be well aware of his ongoing concern with issues facing indigenous Australians. Mystery Road has probably the greatest mainstream appeal of all his films to date – at the very least, it’s easily his most high profile work. Even so, questions of race still very much remain. In large part because the murder victim is black, the investigation of the killing falls to Detective Jay Swan, the nearby town’s one Aboriginal officer, fresh from a stint in the city. Played with hardened charisma by Aaron Pedersen, it’s through Jay’s eyes that the grim tale unfolds.
The case soon proves an arduous one. An outsider wherever he goes, Jay’s badge makes him a figure of suspicion amongst the embittered indigenous community, while his refusal to bend to authority earns him a mix of condescension and animosity from his superiors in the casually racist police force. Never the less, Jay is a damn fine cop, methodically following each lead, and slowly uncovering ties between the victim and a local drug and prostitution racket. But the further that he digs, the more personal that things become, as the investigation soon implicates not only the department’s head narcotics detective (a shady Hugo Weaving), but also Jay’s estranged teenage daughter.
In the long history of Australian film, rarely has the dusty outback landscape looked better, nor possessed a greater sense of menace, than through the unflinching gaze of Sen’s camera. Every shot, edit and moment of sound-scaping heightens the stifling atmosphere; at times, you can almost feel the flies crawling across your brow. Despite its technical precision, however, the film never once feels overly constructed. The investigation unfolds with absolute realism, complete with the dead ends and bureaucratic fumbling inherent in actual police cases.
Admittedly, some viewers may struggle with the methodical pacing and refusal to offer easy answers; just like in the real world, not everything comes neatly packaged. Frequently, Mystery Road recalls No Country For Old Men, as much for its ambiguity as its tension or desolate setting. Still, those who are willing to give the film their patience will be justly rewarded. If nothing else, a climactic final shootout is one of the most gripping scenes of the theatrical year; it’s an exercise in tense technical minimalism worth the price of admission on its own.
Weary, determined and cool under pressure, Pedersen makes Jay a compelling and believable protagonist. Weaving, meanwhile, is the perfect mixture of aggressively friendly and threatening as one of many possible villains – although Sen keeps his precise motivations unclear for as long as the narrative allows. Less uncertain, although no less strong from a performance standpoint, is Ryan Kwanten as one particularly repellent suspect. Recognisable veterans, Tony Barry, Bruce Spence, Jack Thompson and Jack Charles complete the cast, contributing not only strong performances, but augmenting the film’s status as a contemporary Australian classic.