Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returns to his small Queensland country town and his first case is the murder of a teenage girl. Having spent a considerable amount of time in the big city, Jay finds himself alienated from both the police, including the Sergeant (Tony Barry) and drug squad’s Johnno (Hugo Weaving) and his community, including his own daughter, Crystal (Tricia Whitton) who lives with her mother Mary (Tasma Walton). Though thwarted in his investigations by a lack of cooperation from the locals, and a lack of interest from his fellow cops, Jay gradually unravels a complex crime web.
Review by Louise Keller:
There’s a sense of space and isolation in Ivan Sen’s mystery thriller beyond its setting of the middle of nowhere. Aaron Pedersen’s detective Jay Swan is an outsider, no longer part of his own Aboriginal community, or a welcome part of the white police officers with whom he works. Like the flies that stick to the hats that protect the locals from the harsh sun, Jay is stuck – in the middle of the surrounding racially prejudiced world. The narrative begins with the discovery of a murdered aboriginal girl; Jay’s solitary work is to work out for what he is searching. The journey that Sen invites us to take is one of discovery, as he metaphorically digs in the dusty earth to find the clues that allow the mystery to be unravelled.
Wild dogs, truckies, prostitution, roo hunting, alcoholism and drug trafficking are the ingredients of this melting pot in which the locals are keen to ‘keep everything in its place’, ‘keep it dark’ or claim their memory is unlike it used to be. The dialogue is economical, each exchange telling its own story as the different characters are introduced. The constant is the presence of Pedersen’s protagonist and the vast, arid landscape with its forked dirt roads, thirsty grasses, wailing dogs, gnarled branches and flame-coloured sunsets that offer a spectacular backdrop before which silhouettes stealthily move.
Pedersen grounds the film and makes Jay Swan a sympathetic character whose own personal wounds from his failed marriage are exposed. Hugo Weaving is a fine presence as the edgy cop who wonders if Jay has ever killed a man; Ryan Kwanten as the roo shooter who can hit his target from any spot and I especially like Jack Thompson as the old codger who says HE does not remember. David Field, Tony Barry, Robert Mammone, Roy Billings, Zoe Carides and others contribute in roles that allow the exposition to develop with colour. Tasma Walton makes an impression as Jay’s ex-wife, whose demons flow from a bottle. Each character is a stepping stone to the film’s resolution, offering information and colour along the way.
Sen has crafted a film whose pace and action is slow and deliberate, allowing the undercurrent of the tensions to build dramatically over a period of time. His camera work is both creative and unobtrusive. His stated intention of including little music (he wrote the score) is that the dialogue assumes greater importance, allowing each word and exchange to resonate to maximum effect. This works. In true western style, the final shoot out occurs symbolically on Slaughter Hill, which leads off Mystery Road. This is a film to enjoy when you are not in a rush – or if you are in a rush, it will slow you down. Either way, it is well worth the indulgence.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Mystery Road, not far from Massacre Creek, is a place where mysteries are finally solved in Ivan Sen’s powerful and gripping murder mystery. It has the makings of a genuine modern Australian myth, a rare thing in Australian cinema and one to be cherished. The central character of Jay Swan (irony alert; he’s black) is not just an outsider because he’s come back from the big smoke; he has become an outsider to his own people. But he refuses to be torn apart by being in the middle; he stays the course and accepts the heroic challenge.
A mature and superbly controlled film, it features some of the best actors in Australia, from cameos – like Jack Thompson’s marvellous Mr Murray – to the hugely talented Hugo Weaving as intriguing, edgy, charismatic but a bit sleazy drug cop Johnno and Aaron Pedersen as the determined, honest and courageous detective, Jay.
Every single character is perfectly cast: Tasma Walton as Jay’s estranged wife Mary, David Field as the laconic and secretive Mr Baily, Ryan Kwanten as the young redneck Pete, and Jack Charles with his unmistakable mop of white hair as Jay’s uncle he calls Old Boy.
And there are many more big names in small roles: Roy Billing as Mick the gunshop owner, Zoe Carides as the Dusk till Dawn Motel manager and Bruce Spence as Jim the Coroner.
But of particular note is Tricia Whitton making her debut as Jay’s daughter Crystal; Sen has directed her to her best advantage, drawing a superb performance of great authenticity.
The creative effort is equally impressive behind the camera; literally, as in Sen’s own cinematography, editing and music, as well the all important – but supposedly invisible – production design.
And back to Massacre Creek, the fictitious creek where the body of young aboriginal girl Lisa is found; it may be fictitious but the name echoes the many Skull Creeks around Australia, a name frequently used for sites where Aboriginals have been killed, or perhaps even more specifically Skeleton Creek, near Kurunda in Queensland, the site of a massacre of Djabugay people. Mystery Road was shot in Winton, Queensland. Yet it is full of resonances from Sen’s home town of Moree in NSW.