From the opening moments of Mystery Road director Ivan Sen imbues an oppressive sense of tension and foreboding. The spare use of ambient sound, with the action unfolding naturally, combines to allow the film to proceed with a unhurried sense of pace, creating just the right sense of looming threat.
A truckie pulls over to the side of a desolate road in the morning dark to investigate a strange sound. As the character wanders out into the gloom, the audience becomes aware just how isolated he is. With no clear signals as to what is about to happen – is this a monster movie, a supernatural thriller, a slasher pic – the immediate impression is that Mystery Road is a film that knows exactly what it is, something new and invigorating.
The plot begins with the discovery of a teenage girl by the truckie under a bridge. As the girl comes from the local Aboriginal community, recently returned detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is handed the case with little support from his colleagues. The message is clear – the murder of a dead Aboriginal girl is a case that should be put to bed as quickly as possible.
It is to the credit of the script too that this point is not belabored, beyond Jay’s outspoken frustration with the lack of resources. Robert Mammone’s Constable Roberts treats the crime scene with an offhand contempt, whereas the Sergeant (Tony Barry) casually sucks on a stick of ice-cream while delivering the bad news.
Jay’s investigation leads him back to his old neighbourhood in town. With doors slamming shut in his face, few of the locals are willing to speak to him except for the affable Old Boy (Jack Charles) who paints a grim picture of what has been happening in his absence.
Young girls grown increasingly alienated by widespread poverty have turned to drinking and soliciting passing truckies. Gang activity is on the rise and Jay suspects the unusually nervous detective Johnno (Hugo Weaving) is somehow involved. Corruption and graft are everywhere. Even stranger, coroner Jim (Bruce Spence) reports that the body of the young girl was disturbed by an unusually large dog.
Mystery Road could be described as Australian film noir, given its contrasting of narrowly preserved order – Jay’s copper friends know well enough to look the other way where the gangs are concerned – covering the rancid heart of the community. The other obvious point of comparison is that of the Outback Western, complete with a cowboy hat wearing Lawman coming to town to set it to rights. Noir though lends itself to a more complex morality than Westerns and Jay at heart is a pragmatist. It soon becomes clear just how personal his stake in this case is, beyond his anger at how the death of a young woman from his community has been dismissed as an unimportant event.
As a detective he has to abide by the law, while operating in some hinterland between the rule of law and reality. Repeatedly characters throw back his status as a lawman to his face, accusing him of being a race traitor. Pedersen plays the part of Jay as a man with the weight of two worlds on his shoulders, stoically trying to do the right thing by his people, while also working the system to solve the case.
The cast is stuffed to the brim with recognizable faces from Australian cinema. Sen even gets to indulge in a nod to Michael Mann’s famous De Niro/Pacino scene in Heat, by having Pedersen and Weaving face off in a Chinese restaurant. The character of Johnno is fantastic, a man gone-to-seed, floating on raw, nervous energy that immediately rubs up the more solid Jay in the wrong way. It is one example of how the film succeeds as an ensemble piece, each character brought to life with sure touches of a talented cast. Jack Thompson gets a lovely scene, delivering a haunting speech hinting at the true nature of the dogs reported to be wandering in the wild.
Mystery Road is a great genre picture, featuring smart storytelling, executed with a confident use of imagery and natural sound. Currently showing at limited screenings across the country it is a must-watch film.