After a young indigenous girl is found murdered by the side of a busy highway, Aboriginal detective Jay Swan must head an investigation to find out just what happened. The further he digs into the case, the more mysterious it gets, as Jay starts to discover that the murder is just a small piece of a bigger jigsaw that involves drugs, underage prostitution and perhaps most disturbing of all, the fact that the police may be helping in covering it all up. What makes the case suddenly so personal for Jay is the fact that his own teenage daughter may be mixed up in it all too.
“Mystery Road” is a very good Australian film that plays like a mixture of a western and thriller. The best part of the film is the use of the location and landscapes of the town. Director Ivan Sen does a great job of setting up the town, as well as the socio-economic problems that it faces, making the town itself as much of a character as the colourful people that inhabit it. Like “Bends” (the film I saw previous to this), these societal problems are not shoved down our throats but they are very deliberately there in the background. It is obvious that the kids growing up in the community, either indigenous or white, may not have much of a future with drugs, crime, violence and a general lack of respect for life being the norm here. This appears to be less about the kind of people they are, but rather due to the economic conditions and lack of employment opportunities available to them. I also particularly liked the way Sen focused on the way teenagers constantly play on their phones or facebook, even when being interrogated by a police officer. This is damning of today’s youth and sadly rings very true.
Ivan Sen is basically a one-man show here, as not only is he the director of “Mystery Road”, he also is its writer, director of photography, editor and composer. To say that the man has talent is an understatement, but where he really impressed me was with his cinematography. Sen uses the widescreen brilliantly, adept in using space and letting characters fill that space without overwhelming it. You get a sense of just how alone a person could feel in this vast landscape. I particularly liked his use of silhouette during scenes that took place around dusk and I thought that (for once) the aerial shots in the film were outstanding and served a real purpose.
“Mystery Road” is blessed with a fantastic central performance from Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan. Pedersen plays the detective in a calm, low key manner and as a man who appears to take everything in his stride. He is a local man who has actually made something of his life (although he had to leave to do so). Upon his return to town, you can feel his loneliness and almost a sense of no longer fitting in, but Pedersen never portrays Jay as someone who has forgotten his roots. He doesn’t think he is better than anyone else and continues to respect both the elders and juniors of the community.
Besides Pedersen, “Mystery Road” is littered with a wealth of Australian acting talent particularly with the male characters. People like Jack Thompson, Ryan Kwanten, Hugo Weaving and David Field fill out the cast and they are all spectacular. Weaving in particular is especially good, as once again it appears that the local industry really knows how to get the best out of this talented actor.
As good as “Mystery Road” is, it does have a few problems. As the mystery of the film deepens, more and more questions arise and personally I felt not all of these questions were answered properly or sufficiently enough and some of these plot strands seemed to disappear altogether. My other gripe with the film was that after all that had come before it, I was disappointed that it ended in an indiscriminate gunfight. I was expecting more from the end of the film, so to descend into cliché for the finale was disappointing, and the fact that Jay’s gun seemed to rarely need to reload also frustrated me.
Overall though, this is a well made Australian mystery that excels in creating a sense of place and community. It is incredibly well acted and shot and is definitely worth a watch.