Street shooter – Mystery Road review

Mystery Road

By Simon Miraudo
October 15, 2013

Cormac McCarthy is yet to set one of his sparse, existential tales in the Australian outback, and he may never need to now Ivan Sen has picked up the burden with Mystery Road. When it was announced he would be making something like a western – and centered around a “cowboy detective” – it was difficult to imagine how exactly the writer-director behind haunted portraits of indigenous youth Beneath Clouds and Toomelah (not to mention the still-unreleased experimental effort Dreamland) would do so. Mere minutes into the movie, it becomes apparent. His Mystery Road may claim to be a murder-mystery set in the Australian desert, but it’s more significantly about racial politics in Australia; in the small towns and the large.

An indigenous girl’s body is found in a drainpipe off the unfortunately named Mystery Road, near the even-more-unfortunately named Massacre Creek. The white cops aren’t too concerned, conducting a perfunctory investigation with no real intention of getting to the bottom of the crime. Digging too deep could upend the tentative truce held by all the Aboriginal micro-communities with the white residents. Yet that’s exactly what newly-returned detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) decides to do. He’s spurned by the indigenous population, who see him as a traitor, and ostracised by his colleagues, who can’t hide their disdain for his dark skin. No one besides Jay seems interested in solving this murder; everyone else knows doing so would impinge on the poisonous prostitution and drug rings upon which so many rely. When another girl goes missing, Jay’s fears for his own teenage daughter reach fever pitch. Let sleeping dogs lie? Why let the wounds of his old home town fester, when he can simply amputate the rotting limbs?

Mystery Road

Sen has recruited a murderers’ row of esteemed Aussie talent to join Pedersen – a fine, stoic protagonist – including Hugo Weaving, Jack Thompson, Bruce Spence,  Roy Billing, Tony Barry, and Uncle Jack Charles. Tasma Walton also appears as Jay’s estranged wife, while Ryan Kwanten and Damian Walshe-Howling play a couple of skeezy, suspicious individuals. They each pop-up intermittently as police officers, townspeople, and eventual suspects; each one as recognisable as the other, dispelling any early predictions we might make as to who the guilty party really is (breaking the rule of TV procedurals, wherein the most famous guest star would ultimately be revealed as responsible for that episode’s offence). However, just as the inquiry comes to a head, Sen sideswipes us entirely. Jay’s motives shift from simply finding a killer to healing his town’s ailments with extreme force; taking accountability for his people and finally choosing a side. It’s an emotional moment that’s brought to life by way of a thrilling, climactic shoot-out; the first time the otherwise meditative and contemplative feature actually feels like the classic westerns its trailer advertises.

Working once again as cinematographer, editor, and composer, Sen continues to exhibit a complete vision, executed with inimitable style. His camerawork is once again superlative, though his deliberate and considered direction may agitate viewers hoping for something a bit more rousing and crowd-pleasing. Mystery Road isn’t interested in being those things. It’s action-packed in another and perhaps more resonant way. Sen draws a definitive line in the sand here, forcing Jay (and us) to deal with Australia’s spotty history, rather than let him bargain his way into another uncertain treaty. Sen doesn’t suggest the complicated relationship between Australia’s inhabitants be solved by a hail of bullet-fire. Rather, that we make healing a priority, no matter how painful it may be. By packaging it in a conventional cop movie – well, as only Sen could make – his message will hopefully be received.

3.5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews.

Mystery Road arrives in Australian cinemas October 17, 2013.

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