MYSTERY ROAD. Starring Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Zoe Carides, Tricia Whitton, Tasma Walton, and Jack Thompson. Directed by Ivan Sen. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language). 116 min.
This Australian crime thriller is about an Indigenous Police Officer, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) who returns from a city job to outback Queensland. His first assignment as a detective is to find the killer of a young Indigenous girl who was brutally murdered. The film screened in the Special Presentation section of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and opened the 2013 Sydney Film Festival. Ivan Sen, the film's young Indigenous Director, also scripted, edited, composed the music for the movie, and was responsible for its cinematography.
The murder was of a teenage Indigenous girl in a community that is rife with racial bias, alcohol abuse, drug trafficking, and criminal prostitution. She is a local girl from a town that is "a war zone" and in moral decline. Corruption is everywhere, and everyone knows that prostitution can have fatal consequences. The film reveals the dark nature of the town through a series of vignettes in which people living in the town (Jack Thompson, Ryan Kwanten, and Zoe Carides) play a series of cameo parts.
The film fluctuates between being a crime thriller and a taut psychological drama about Jay, the town, and the people Jay is forced to mix with. Jay is silently in conflict with those around him. He is isolated from the white-dominated Police Force that is in charge of the town, and the Indigenous community distrusts him because he is part of the authority that has been established to control it. He is seen as a person "of a dark breed", who "turns on his own type".
The nature of the town and the people in it holds centre stage until the movie moves into thriller mode that results in an action-packed final showdown. The movie lags a little in moving from one mode to the other, and the clues as to who is (or are) ultimately responsible for the girl's death are hard to detect on the way through, but the atmosphere built up by the movie is terrific. The town literally simmers with conflict and corruption. This is an environment where the Indigenous population has been marginalised and criminality has taken over. The acting is uniformly excellent. Hugo Weaving is in particularly fine form as a fellow-cop, who works with Jay, and who delivers a marvellously ambiguous portrayal of someone living with a guilty past.
This is an impressively directed film of great visual beauty that lays bare on a broad front the tensions existing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in remote Australia. Jay faces the resentment of his own people, and the investigation reveals the extent of the problems he also faces personally. The inquiry implicates his daughter, Crystal (Tricia Whitton), who was a friend of the victim, and who herself has sold sex for drugs, and his ex-wife, Mary (Tasma Walton) who is involved as well.
The movie is scripted sparingly, builds up excellent tension, and is a success in finding a balance between social impact and entertainment. Rich in metaphor it explores what lies beneath its sinister surface. The title of the movie, for example, is meant to refer to a place of destiny where events of great significance are about to happen.
This is a very impressive movie that will emerge inevitably as one of the best Australian movies of the year. The acting is of top quality, the direction is excellent, and the isolation and barrenness of the Australian outback are captured brilliantly in the film's camera work. The outback hues are glorious, and the film makes particularly effective use of sharply focused silhouettes.
This film is full of insights about race relations in outback Australia, and is a movie that richly deserves to be seen. In so many ways, it is a model of what not to do and what not to let ever happen.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Released October 17th., 2013.