June 6, 2013
Outback case crawls towards action-packed finale.
In almost every scene is Aaron Pedersen, whose potential for leading man stardom has clearly been undervalued by local film producers. He plays Detective Joe Swan, the good sheriff (note the none-to-subtle white cowboy hat) amongst a lot of ambiguously bad people, such as his Sargeant (Tony Barry) and a charismatic old-school detective (a compelling Hugo Weaving) with whom Swan clashes, however succinctly. They oversee a township in decline; the Indigenous population has been marginalised, drugs and alcohol abuse abound and a criminal element is taking hold. Worse, Aboriginal teenage girls are taking to prostitution with fatal consequences; the dead girl ran in the same circles as Swan’s own daughter, from which he is estranged.
Pedersen’s Swan often seems like a dog protecting his territory, constantly driving to the most far-flung of locales in his desire to have right done; bite marks on the victim and ongoing references to and constant presence of ‘wild dogs’ as part of the investigation suggest as much. The personality of the town itself is revealed via a series of cameos from the likes of David Field, Jack Thompson, Damian Walshe-Howling, Roy Billing, Ryan Kwanten, Zoe Carides, Tasma Walton and the great Jack Charles. The divide that exists between blacks and whites, young and old, rural values and big city smarts are all explored to varying degrees via these vividly realised bit parts.
In the film’s first half, Sen all but shunts the murder investigation aside, preferring to strengthen the audience’s understanding of and sympathy towards the key players. In the absence of the usual crime-scene chitchat and forensic gabble, acts one and two might prove a little too understated for those expecting tension and melodrama. Some convenient use of deus ex machina and a barrage of red herrings might further test the patience of those in the mood for a crime story, but genre machinations do not seem to be the major concern of Sen. When violent gunplay finally takes a backseat to taut drama, Sen proves he is perfectly capable as a director of action sequences; the climactic stand-off is terrifically involving.
Most recently, Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill covered similar terrain; there are clearly also elements that remind one of Ray Lawrence’s Lantana, Nick Parson’s Dead Heart (also featuring Pedersen) and, of course, the Charles Chauvel classic, Jedda. Examining the difference in cultural, social and gender roles in Australian society against a traditionally tough rural setting, all within the cinematic milieu of western iconography, has proven enticing to some of this nation’s best filmmakers. Mystery Road is further evidence of that.