There is an interesting history of rural police in Australia. Police officers, at least those in Western Australia, are required to rotate towns every 1-2 years because if they stay still too long they become corrupt. I’ve always found it fascinating that inherently good men & women can turn bad if they live in an isolated and morally corrupt community for too long. Mystery Road touches on these ideas, and it as a film represents the type of Australian film I’d love to make if ever given a chance.
Working essentially as an outback noir, Mystery Road focuses of the dogged indigenous detective Jay Swan, who gets called in from the city to investigate the murder of an indigenous girl in his closet-racist and corrupt country hometown. Jay slowly unravels the mystery, finding the murder plot goes far deeper and is much more expansive then he’d original thought, and all the while is forced to deal with his lost ex-wife and his out of control daughter.
Mystery Road sadly never fully explores the strengths of its premise. It is a surface exploration, one that is captivating without ever getting to the dark heart of the problem. For those new to the ‘problem’ it is probably an interesting exercise, but for me I was constantly urging it to go further and do more. It suffers from the common problem of touching on too many ideas instead of focusing and fully developing one clear-cut idea. However, despite all of this, those unaware of the complexities of the Australian outback may not pick up on the threads, as director Ivan Sen has a done a good job of making a well-rounded thriller that works for those purely after face value.
Just like the plot and its themes, the rest of the film varies between great and lacking. Its strengths lie mostly in its production, with the cinematography being one of the most haunting and beautifully produced on shores in a long while. From the very first shot it drags you into the dark underbelly of the outback and it gives Mystery Road every inch of its character. The magic hour scenes are simply gorgeous, the bright reds of the desert light are piercing. The overhead shots of the community give a key insight to how bare and bland these small towns are. The Australian outback has never looked this good.
The aforementioned lacking comes mostly from the cast. Aaron Pederson has made a great supporting actor over the years, and here his brooding swagger and confidence show the hallmarks of a great dogged noir detective, but Pederson lacks the strength required to stick the frequent emotional scenes, especially those involving his daughter. One of the most disappointing performances comes (surprisingly!) from Hugo Weaving, who hasn’t been this poor in a long while. Weaving’s performance feels like a caricature and his hamminess belongs in a less serious Australian thriller. Jack Thompson and Ryan Kwanten are completely wasted in what amounts to not much then cameos. A lot of the supporting cast are painfully bad – it starts out distracting and gets gradually more frustrating.
Kudos to Ivan Sen for crafting yet another interesting slice of indigenous life, and for wanting to expose the dark underbelly of the outback. Sen doesn’t always hit the mark, but he should be commended for building a quietly intense slow-burning thriller that is constantly engaging. Thematically it does feel under-explored and the supporting cast are quite frustrating. But the cinematography is stunning throughout and it features some of my favourite individual shots of 2013. Aaron Pederson also delivers a fine, if patchy, performance as the determined lead and he turns in a wonderfully conflicted noir-esque detective. Please check out Mystery Road, it is one of the stronger Aussie efforts from recent years.