November 6, 2013
4 / 5 – Very Good
Aboriginal detective Jay Swan is put on the case to investigate the death. He hasn’t got much to work with, most of the police department’s resources have been directed toward the drug squad headed by Johnno, who’s full of confident, sleazy swagger. Jay is on his own in more ways than one, and as he begins to ask questions he’s met with silence on all sides.
Jay has only just returned home after some time in the city and has left behind an estranged ex-partner and a teenage daughter. He’s distrusted by the Aboriginal community who see him as a traitor, but he’s still an outsider among the blokey white cops he works with. Jay’s only strong Aboriginal connection is with eccentric elder Old Boy (played by veteran actor Jack Charles with charming energy) who offers snippets of information for a bit of bingo money.
The police chief would rather Jay didn’t find anything, lest disrupting the status quo turns the town into a warzone. But, after witnessing just about every Aboriginal social issue first hand in the course of his investigation, poverty, gambling, alcoholism, drug addiction, spousal abuse, and teenage prostitution, Jay reminds his boss that some people are already in the middle of a warzone, and as the mystery of the crime deepens, it also gets closer to his own daughter. It all leads to a genuinely thrilling climax with a long distance shootout (possibly at Gunfight Rock) that could only play out in the wide expanses of Australia.
Despite the cowboy hats and the violent finale, this is not simply an Australian spin on the Western genre. It’s primarily a police procedural thriller with a strong angle on Aboriginal social justice. As Jay Swan Aaron Pederson is reserved and stand offish, and his character is not always easy to like, but he ably captures the frustrations of a man stuck between two worlds. Despite the resistance, he may be the only man who can traverse both worlds to solve the murder. As he parts company with Old Boy, the old man asks him to “Keep it in the dark” regarding their friendship. That’s okay with Jay though, he’s conducting “Secret policeman’s business.” Some things are still best kept quiet after all.
Ivan Sen is a true auteur, handling the writing, directing, cinematography, editing and score himself. Such is Sen’s renown in the industry that he has attracted a virtual who’s who of Aussie character actors, who regularly crop up in small speaking roles, almost to the point of distraction, in what is perhaps his most high profile follow up to the widely praised Beneath Clouds. The stunning twilight and night time cinematography is some of the best that I’ve ever seen and there’s some impressive polish to the production.
Mystery Road is a slow burner. Mildly frustrating at times, it provides a certain amount of satisfaction by the time the credits roll and has a way of getting under your skin for days afterwards. Fans of the classic British gangster film Get Carter may see some similarities, there is an unnerving feeling of mounting rage that builds and builds, but instead of burning all his bridges like Jack Carter, Detective Jay Swan is likely to be mending a few as well.