May 30, 2014
After a young Aboriginal girl is found in a drainpipe with her throat slashed, Detective Jay Swan (a taciturn Aaron Pedersen sauntering onto the screen with white hat, cowboy boots and a trusty sidearm) returns to his remote hometown to hunt down the men responsible. More Western-themed social commentary than murder mystery, Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road smoulders with a palpable sense of understated menace, frustration and alienation.
This oppressive isolation is most strongly felt in Pedersen’s portrayal of Aboriginal lawman Jay Swan, a powerful re-imagining of the role of the Indigenous Black Tracker figure from Australian history. Caught between the contempt of his own people and the apathy of a predominantly white Police Department, Swan’s investigation soon becomes a struggle to forge some kind of order out of a community that now treats him as a stranger.
With the help of a stellar cast of some of Australia’s leading actors and the raw visual power of the Australian Outback, Ivan Sen (whose previous work includes the more art house Beneath the Clouds and Toomelah) meticulously sifts through the hidden levels of prejudice and depression in small-town Queensland. Each scene is shot with a familiarity that reveals the director’s strong personal connection to the racial divide, crime and gun culture that are still as prevalent now as they were during Sen’s own childhood.
The cast take to their (sometimes all-too-brief) roles with languid ease, with Hugo Weaving’s affably unbalanced rival coppa providing a much-needed diversion during some of the film’s slower moments. More striking still is Tasma Walton as Swan’s alcoholic ex-wife Mary, whose sullen vulnerability gives the film an emotional anchor and offers us a glimpse into the detective’s own past demons.
While Pedersen dominates almost every scene of film, many of the other characters are unfortunately kept on the periphery – Daniel Fields, Jack Thompson and Ryan Kwanten in particular feel underused in light of the performances they give.
Mystery Road is visually stunning, with the harsh and unchanging Australian wastes providing a perfect setting for Sen’s slow-burning thriller. This emptiness is heightened by the gaping hole in the movie’s soundtrack – with a few exceptions, the only music is the screech of old tires on dirt and the howling of wild dogs.
While the achingly slow pacing of the second act ultimately pays off in one of the tensest shoot outs in recent memory, some audience members may find the endless dead-end leads and gruff tough-guy dialogue that makes up Jay’s investigation ponderous and frustrating.
As a murder mystery, Mystery Road is sluggish and ultimately unsatisfying. Nevertheless, Sen’s latest film is a confronting, poignant glimpse into the many shades between black and white – and the people caught in the middle.
First published online for Issimo Magazine