The wilds of Australia play home to Ivan Sen’s latest in both a physical and metaphorical sense. The oppression of indigenous peoples was a topic explored in his previous film, Toomelah (2009), and it glints as a rich vein of this new genre nugget, Mystery Road (2013). Determined to steer clear of anticipated escalations in narrative thrust, it prefers to grip your attention by allowing a constant simmer beneath the surface of the barren outback. Jay Swan (played by Aaron Pedersen) occupies the role of local lawman. An entire police department is at the disposal of this small town, but the Aboriginal detective seems to stand alone after returning to his hometown from a spell in the “Big Smoke”.
On Swan’s first day back on the job, the body of a young indigenous girl is found beside the eponymous highway at the ominously named ‘Massacre Creek’. Our protagonist sets about tracking down the culprit and his investigations implicate colleagues, while also revealing foetid corruption and the smouldering tensions of the wider community. The shifty trucker who made the original grisly discovery remarks on hearing wild dogs bothering the body, and Swan wonders how he knew that they were wild. This is an early nod to the world that Sen has attempted to create: an outback synonymous with America’s legendary Wild West. It’s a place where the arrival of civilisation doesn’t necessarily assure civility, and the tenuous line between domestication and savagery is blurred at very best.
Complete with some stunning cinematography effortlessly capturing the beauty of the natural surroundings, what we get is a brutal and unforgiving world in which Pedersen’s Swan is determined to make a lone stand against the criminal gang dominating his patch. Pedersen does a good job as the laconic sheriff of this two-bit town keeping his cool despite abuse from both sides of the racial divide. He’s an Aboriginal cop: the first word being problematic for the entrenched white community, and the second being the issue for his own. It’s in this unfamiliar investigation into such issues that Mystery Road is at its most effective, rather than in its suspense. Instead of racing through the expected beats of a typical thriller, it actively eschews them in favour of maintaining atmospheric enigma and nodding towards a variety of other genres including horror and even science fiction.
Able acting support is offered by a wealth of Aussie talent, with established names such as Hugo Weaving positioned alongside familiar faces like Bruce Spence, Jack Thompson and True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten. The measured narrative and anti-climactic finale do mean that Mystery Road doesn’t pander to all tastes, and it never conforms to thriller conventions, but Sen has undoubtedly succeeded in fashioning a thoroughly engrossing journey into a modern Australian wilderness that’s well worth seeking out.
This review was originally published on 11 October 2013 as part of our extensive BFI London Film Festival coverage.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson