June 6, 2013
The Sydney Film Festival kicked off Wednesday night with Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road, an indigenous murder story close to its director’s heart but aiming for the mainstream.
When a filmmaker talks about three women in his extended family being murdered and the police not doing enough to find the killers, you know he is passionately connected to the story he is telling.
But rather than a blazing polemic – and having seen his touching Beneath Clouds (2002) and confronting Toomelah (2011) play in just a handful of art-house cinemas – indigenous writer-director-cinematographer Ivan Sen is aiming for a wider audience with Mystery Road.
With a cast of entertaining outback characters, plenty of dry humour and stunning landscapes, the slow-burning murder-mystery has had a warm reception at its world premiere, opening the Sydney Film Festival.
Like a western, Mystery Road centres on a lawman, loner Aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), who returns to his home town to discover it has been taken over by the lawless.
With other police focused on the thriving drug trade and robberies, he becomes the sole cop interested in solving the murder of an indigenous teenage girl whose body has been found by a truckie in a drain just out of town.
The case becomes personal when Jay discovers his sullen teenage daughter was a close friend of the dead girl, who was rumoured to be having sex with truckies to get money for drugs.
As suspects mount, Jay’s loyalties are questioned around town.
To the Aboriginal community, he is just another cop (”We hate coppers bro,” says a young boy, ”we kill coppers bro”). To the white community, he is ”the Abo cop” or ”boy”.
Rather than the slick crime-solving of television police procedurals, Sen takes time to dwell on an assortment of very Australian characters, with strong performances by Tasma Walton as Jay’s ex-wife, Jack Charles as town character Old Boy, Tony Barry as the police sergeant, Hugo Weaving as an oddball cop, Jack Thompson as a sad old-timer, Damian Walshe-Howling as a small-time drug dealer, Bruce Spence as the coroner, David Field as a flinty-eyed grazier and Ryan Kwanten as his hunter son.
While all add to the texture of an outback town in crisis and give different perspectives on black-white relations, having so many characters slows the film’s pacing until an action-packed finale.
A solid choice to open the festival, Mystery Road confirms the talent of indigenous storytelling in Australian film.