November 29, 2013
Director Ivan Sen’s fourth feature, Mystery Road (2013), in which he also acts as cinematographer, editor and composer, is his most fully realised yet. Following in the wake of lyrical debut Beneath Clouds (2002), the elliptical, confoundingly abstract Dreamland(2009), and the subtly moving Toomelah (2011), Sen has widened his canvas by rooting his new drama in a much loved and tested narrative tradition, that of the detective story.
Ray Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an Aboriginal detective has recently returned to the outback from the “big smoke”. His first case will trip him headlong into a disturbing mystery that begins with the discovery of a young Aboriginal girl’s body in a drainage pipe under the freeway just out of town. Ray is determined to dig into this place’s murky recent past, much of which he’s been cut off from, whilst using the local knowledge he’s acquired from his sketchy past relationship with the place. Thus, old and new strands are exposed, with the motivations of many, including fellow detective Johnno (Hugo Weaving), cannily withheld by Sen’s even-handed, cleverly constructed screenplay.
Though it moves at a very deliberate pace, Mystery Road is packed with meaningful reflections, colourful insights and a brilliantly chosen support cast who help emphasise the potential usefulness of every exchange of information. Ryan Kwanten, David Field, Tony Barry, Jack Thompson, Tasma Walton and Damian Walsh-Howling are all standouts in helping flesh out the narrative with decisive, smaller turns, though many other familiar faces can be spotted in cameos as well; the appearance of each is surely testament to the respect Sen has earned in his homeland.
Sen’s wonderful dialogue is smart and subtly alert to the formality it must in one sense conform to whilst treading an idiosyncratic path through the town’s murky epicentre as viewed, always, from Ray’s soulful, meditative perspective. The escalating social ills which have deadened this place become a troubling backdrop to Ray’s determination to hunt down such reprehensible criminals. The spectre of wild dogs haunt the margins of this beautiful but secluded, dust-shrouded outpost; they exist physically and verbally as a metaphor for the savagery that builds in force under cover of a protective force-field that may be too powerful for Ray to penetrate with lawful detection alone.
Pedersen is a magnificent focal point for his director. Ray is rigorous and empathetic but a cool customer too and Pedersen displays a remarkable ability to relay the effect of damaging reverberations from a past without virtually any explicit contextualising information from Sen. For instance, there’s the worrisome possible connection of his own daughter’s connection to the dead girl, a fact he must compartmentalise to continue objectively sifting through the facts.
The setting of Mystery Road is uniquely Australian but the context resonates with universality – that the detective is indigenous has no bearing on either our perception or the outcome. Rather, Ray is a classical cinematic figure – a staunch upholder of integrity, fighting inch by inch to reclaim that one determining, crucial fact from a litany of lies, half-truths and callous deceptions that helps break the case wide open.
This is a work of great maturity, composed with a subtle grasp of the immensity and potential for visually allusive poetry inherent in the landscape of this place that exists, as encapsulated by the final frames, teetering on a knife’s edge, somewhere between pain, beauty and weary resignation.