June 6, 2013
Aboriginal detective Joe Swan, returned to his small town after a stint in the city, finds himself investigating the murder of a teenaged Aboriginal girl in this crime thriller by ambitious, independent filmmaker Ivan Sen. As the town’s secrets are unravelled, a sometimes awkward plot is eclipsed by Sen’s cinematic craft, stellar performances and insights about the intricacies of race relations in rural Australia. This subject matter can be often piously handled but thanks to Sen’s deft touch, here the more difficult political messages do not patronise the audience.
Swan’s personal choices, which have left him estranged from his daughter and created a complex, bitter relationship with her mother, are also symptomatic of his relationship with the broader Aboriginal community. He has returned to a town in which he is now a complete outsider. Through becoming a police officer – and thus securing one of the few well-paid jobs in the rural community – Swan has distanced himself from the Aboriginal community by his professional choice and economic elevation. But the white community doesn’t trust him either, always seeing his colour first.
He seems resigned to this isolation, aware that the alternative is to remain in the desolate, helplessness of the cycle of poverty that is plaguing others in the Aboriginal community. The “caught between two worlds” dilemma facing Aboriginal people is now well-trodden ground but Sen’s lack of sentimentality about this conundrum is a refreshing interpretation.
While the story of Mystery Road is not a complex one, the strength of Sen’s work lies in his ability to accurately explore the context of these relationships in microcosm of an Australian country town. The historical tensions between Aboriginal and white people simmer under the surface, carefully suppressed; resentment bubbling up.
These communities are small and memories are long. Aboriginal people, pushed from their land, now living in places with sparse employment opportunities, have few options and little hope. The unravelling of the social fabric has led to social crises that are overwhelming the towns that fall into dysfunction. Drugs, alcohol and gambling are the most popular means of escape.
With this comes criminal and other anti-social behaviour and Sen makes an unflinching statement about the sexual exploitation of vulnerable Aboriginal girls – a too common occurrence in this context. This is tough subject matter and Sen never for a moment shies away from it. The repercussions for a society that so abandons its most marginalised is one of the strongest undercurrents of his film, his bleakest prophesy.
As a director Ivan Sen is a truly accomplished filmmaker. His credits here include writer, editor, director of photography and composer. An auteur of such breadth inevitably makes a definitive statement. There is none of the collaboration between creative forces that usually go into making a film – a dance between the director’s vision, the writer’s pen, the cinematographer’s eye and the editor’s construction. Here, Sen is sole alchemist and while his confidence could seem like hubris, he has a strong track record of virtually one-man filmmaking, proving himself to be a true artisan of the craft.
Like all artists, he makes his art look easy. But Mystery Road is no fluke. It is born out of Sen’s growing body of work, motifs of which litter this film. There is the sparse desolateness of Australia’s decaying rural towns that was also evident in Toomelah and Beneath Clouds, the exploration of landscape and historical context of criminality in Wind, the struggle to find a place between two worlds that runs through much of Sen’s work.
Only one aspect detracts from the film: flaws in the murder-mystery plot. There are elements of deus ex machina in the way clues reveal themselves, moments of cumbersome exposition and confusing gaping holes in the story. Such worries are, however, compensated for by the film’s engaging, often poignant characterisations. In Toomelah, Sen used non-actors. In Mystery Road he has a pantheon of Australian cinema mainstays: Jack Thompson plays the isolated Mr Murray; Jack Charles deftly mixes slyness and cheek to make a loveable community elder; and Hugo Weaving brings to life the untrustworthy fellow cop.
But this is Aaron Pedersen’s film. Having earned his acting stripes on television dramas, Pedersen has proved himself a competent workhorse. Given the chance to take centre stage, he is given the opportunity to show a charisma and depth that is a welcome revelation.
Although Sen is unflinching about his material, one suspects that at his heart he must be an optimist. Despite the plot holes, the richness of his characterisations and his understated but ultimately redemptive touches give an ultimately hopeful conclusion to a simple story with many dark undertones.