June 6, 2013
At the opening night of the 60th Sydney Film Festival, director Ivan Sen and his leading man, Aaron Pedersen, spoke graciously of all the supporting performers in the film. Such praise was afforded them, because almost all other praise could only go to Sen, who added, charmingly, “I think I did everything else.”
Essentially a western, Mystery Road follows Jay Swan, an indigenous police detective, who, after an unexplained – presumably work related – stint in “the big smoke” returns to his hometown in central Queensland when the body of a local girl is found under the highway.
Jay is met with no warm returns, not from his former “colleagues” of the local police or by his ex or their teenage daughter. Determined to solve his first big case, Jay learns that the girls murder is linked to underage prostitution and drug trafficking and fails to solicit any support from the community in bringing such corruption to an end.
In fact, no one wants to help him. Which, aside from all the cowboy hats and the desert-like surroundings, brings classics like High Noon and Rio Bravo to mind and the violent finale/showdown brings it on home. The film is also, and largely so, a murder mystery but the procedural details – the film is almost entirely composed of interviews conducted by Swan – tend only to lay on thick the cultural divide that he is caught in, rather than involve you in any suspicions.
Pedersen is a strange cowboy, and it is hard to know where he begins and the character of Jay Swan ends. As Jay, he is uncomfortable in his clothes, an indigenous man with a badge, the kind of mix-up that has him walking a narrow line between the two extremely divided groups – there is a fantastic scene of him showing a local boy his gun in exchange for information. He also has a distinctive walk. Not quite John Wayne’s slanted swagger, but a heaviness in his stride that makes him both intimidating and awkward. The police, who include Hugo Weaving, are secretive and smart-mouthed, and have some of the worst on-screen eating habits to date. Jay’s disgust with these white fellas is written almost permanently on his face.
Sen has constructed a slow-burning detective-western that does have an impressive cast of mostly minor characters – the highlight of which is an eccentric, happy-go-lucky Jack Charles, as an elder who appears to be the only well-wisher of the detective’s acquaintance. The film exhibits minimal action other than a sudden and significant amount toward the end, which is worth the wait. Aside from the re-tooling of all the characters’ vocals – which were incredibly deep and loud (though, perhaps the cinema’s fault) – and some strange framing choices, Mystery Road is a good Australian film and rare insight into indigenous life, both in a day-to-day dialogue and considering the racial myths that appear to be perpetuated – by both sides – about which side of the law a black fella belongs, and what lawfulness means in a community that no longer cares.