A deeply satisfying and slow-burning modern-day western set in outback New South Wales, Ivan Sen’s outstanding film Mystery Road bridges the current divide in Australian cinema with a prominent and precise work: it is a genre film that unfolds along almost classical lines, invoking film noir with its uneasy investigation into a murder, but it does so with an awareness of racial politics in this country that makes the social commentary deeply resonant.
When the body of a brutally murdered indigenous teenage girl is found under a bridge, responsibility for the investigation falls to Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). As an Aboriginal police officer, Jay is caught between divided lines. He’s estranged from his wife (Tasma Walton) and teenage daughter, a friend of the victim, while his colleagues maintain a wary distance.
In a varied career Pedersen has been a handsome, urgent actor; here he’s slightly thicker around the middle, giving him a low centre of gravity as he trawls for clues and weighs up those he encounters. Jay looks like someone who has bottled up so many frustrations that it’s unclear which way he’ll eventually turn, with the sparse but evocative dialogue stoking both his suspicions and his otherness.
Jay’s investigation reveals the town’s underbelly, where drug manufacture and use is common and underage girls prostitute themselves to truck drivers. Each step reveals another link in an impressive cast, from Ryan Kwanten’s hothead and Jack Thompson’s retiree to David Field’s racist farmer and Hugo Weaving’s patronising drug-squad boss.
The latter laconically calls Jay ”Jay Boy”, a greeting that is personally friendly and racially loaded, and it’s typical of the tension that builds in Mystery Road. With locations named after historical events such as Slaughter Hill, the division between black and white Australia is brought into sharp relief at each turn, but the tension is told – and relieved – visually. Sen has no time for sermonising and Pedersen’s Jay would never deliver one.
Mystery Road confirms the promise suggested in Sen’s 2002 debut Beneath Clouds. It fuses Fred Schepisi’s 1978 classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and John Sturges’ menacing 1955 Hollywood mystery Bad Day at Black Rock beneath a troubled, contemporary character. And when the reckoning comes Sen only heightens the tension. There’s no easy way out in Mystery Road.