Published Sep 16, 2013Having already made politically and socially conscious festival hits Beneath Clouds and Toomelah, director Ivan Sen has established himself as an assured voice of Australian, even global, cinema. With each subsequent film, he's demonstrated an aptitude for interpreting genre tropes and film theory, playing with mainstream narrative conceits by distorting them with an outsider's perspective.
It's the sort of experimentation and slyly subversive auteur trajectory that lend themselves well to the classic Western, a genre already inverted by the inherent criminality of British colonization in Australia (something exploited to astounding effect in John Hillcoat's The Proposition). With Mystery Road, Sen employs the stoic, geographically conscious nature of the Western, capturing the sparseness and spatial specificity of the outback when Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returns from a policing gig in the city to investigate the brutal murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl.
His return, like any good Western, sets off a series of conflicts (or at least exposes the seething underbelly of intolerance) amidst the locals that makes his investigation progressively problematic. His every attempt to clarify the increasingly murky moral lexicon — discovering an underground prostitution ring, wherein truckers pay for underage Aboriginal girls — is met with resistance and deliberately obfuscating bureaucracy from fellow detectives (Hugo Weaving) and the police chief.
This gradual reveal of character motivations and hierarchical corruption, though standard for Australian cinema (many films of late have focused on police corruption and ties to organized crime), are where Mystery Road shines. Once Jay finally tracks down a lead, he's told he's an informant and isn't to be interfered with, knocking Jay back to square one. Similarly, after discovering an underage prostitution ring involving drug-addicted Aboriginal girls and truckers, he reaches out to his estranged daughter and ex-wife (Tasma Walton), only to unearth some vitriol about his absence and harsh realities about the lifestyle they've adopted.
These character dynamics and the slow-building sense of dread stemming from a lack of cooperation and the ever-increasing incestuousness within this dusty Queensland community add an overriding sense of paranoia to this modern cowboy parable. This, amidst the unsentimental, oft-harsh social commentary about race and class relations in the Outback, is what gives a sense of integrity and meaning to a relatively straightforward mystery.
It's clear that Sen is far more interested in how these people relate to each other than constructing a complex crime film. That the police are involved with the local organized crime industry is implicit, leaving the few stray suspects — chiefly, a pig hunter (Ryan Kwanten) — to scowl and antagonize unnecessarily. How everyone is involved in the central investigation, though initially of utmost importance, becomes secondary and almost perfunctory once it's obvious the main conflict stems from Jay's inability to get a straight answer from anyone.
As a metaphor, this works to reinforce Sen's commentary about the disconnect between social subsections aiding in corruption and crime, but it hinders and somewhat deadens the visceral component of the Western mystery structure. A stark, uncompromising final blowout does rattle the senses and shock, to some degree, but it's almost a foregone conclusion that, despite being exceptionally constructed, Mystery Road is hindered by its fatalistic implications.
(Well Go USA)