Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road is an astounding Australian film. A unique mixture of Western and crime drama set in the red expanse of an Outback Australia town, Mystery Road proves that Australian films, filmmakers and actors deserve their place on the world stage.
Aaron Pedersen plays Jay Swan, an Indigenous police officer returning to his hometown after a stint in the city. While investigating the death of a teenage girl, Jay uncovers a vast web of drug-related crime. Racial and social conflict is abundant in the town, making Jay’s investigation all the more difficult.
Mystery Road is an expertly shot film. The cinematography conveys the choking dust and vast expanses of the Australian Outback incredibly well. The overhead shots of the town and roads are by far the best shots in the film, however brief. Silhouetted scenes are used throughout which, while not groundbreaking, are visually beautiful.
Combine the physical setting with the lack of soundtrack, sparse dialogue and desert surroundings, and Sen manages to create an atmosphere and tone very similar to that of No Country for Old Men. In fact, if one were to blend the physical setting of No Country for Old Men with the social setting of Snowtown, I imagine you would end up with a film very similar to Mystery Road.
Speaking of the social setting, Mystery Road does a fantastic job of portraying lower socio-economic, Outback life. The film does not shy away from themes of youth drug abuse, prostitution, poverty and corruption. It tackles these head-on, presenting them bluntly and almost shockingly. Some of the most striking images of the film, such as a line-up of children being searched by police, wouldn’t exist if Sen weren’t brave enough to explore these themes.
While Mystery Road is a serious film, it is not entirely without comedy. The film opens in a place called Massacre Creek, which caused the audience to laugh. The discovery of a body seconds later however, shocked them back to the grizzly drama. I did find it interesting to note that scenes that were probably not intended to be funny caused a lot of the laughter.
The acting from the main cast, including Aussie staples Hugo Weaving and Jack Thompson, was largely high quality, though some lines of dialogue felt a little clunky. Aaron Pedersen’s acting was the strongest, showing off his skill in almost every scene of the 2-hour film. Overall the casting was good, Pedersen perfectly fitting the bill of disgruntled yet determined ‘good’ cop.
The film does suffer a bit from its slightly silly ending that seems out of place in such a serious film. Another instance, in which a forensic scientist suggests the existence of a breed of ‘super dog’ (sadly absent from the screen), made me laugh out loud for the sheer ridiculousness of it.
Mystery Road is an intriguing and good-looking film that explores some of the most complex issues in Australian culture and keeps you absorbed until the very end.
Reviewed by James Rudd
Rating out of 10: 7
Mystery Road opens nationally on 17 October 2013
- Mystery Road official film website
- Mystery Road at the Sydney Film Festival
- Mystery Road Facebook page