Mystery Road (2013)

Australia / 121 minutes / color / Bunya, Mystery Road, Screen Australia, ABC Dir & Scr & Cine: Ivan Sen Pr: David Jowsey Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Jack Thompson, Tony Barry, Robert Mammone, Tasma Walton, Damian Walshe-Howling, David Field, Bruce Spence, Jack Charles, Tricia Whitton, Siobhan Binge, Daniel Roberts, Samara Weaving, Zoe Carides, Roy Billing, Jarrah Louise Bundle, Lillian Crombie, Angela Swan, Geoff Potter, Hayden Spencer.

A splendid reminder that the spirit of dark rural noir is alive and well in Australia.

Detective Jay Swan (Pedersen), recently returned to his small hometown in Queensland, picks up the case of a young indigenous girl, Julie Mason (uncredited), found murdered by Massacre Creek on the outskirts of town. Facing resistance from the indigenous community because he’s seen as having sold out to their daily persecutors, the cops, and from the white community, where racism is to a greater or lesser extent rife, Jay slowly unfolds a criminal ring involving cocaine, teenage prostitution and the murders of far more than just a single girl.

Aaron Pedersen as Jay.

Hugo Weaving as Johnno.

Worse for him, it seems that some in the police department, including the senior undercover cop we know only as Johnno (Hugo Weaving) and even the sergeant (Barry) who runs the department, may be in on the scheme.

And there’s worse still: some evidence could indicate that Crystal (Whitton), Jay’s daughter by his estranged, alcoholic ex, Mary (Walton), may be among the wild local girls who sell their favors to transitory truckers to get money for drugs and grog.

Tony Barry as the sergeant.

Tasma Walton as Mary.

Tricia Whitton as Crystal.

To a surprising extent, almost all of the roles in Mystery Road are small ones: the only players who have much to work with are Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Barry and Walton, plus, arguably, Ryan Kwanten, as local bad boy and vicious racist jerk Pete Bailey, and Damian Walshe-Howling as prime community drugs pusher Wayne Silverman.

There are, too, some pleasing cameos, notably from Jack Charles as an elderly aboriginal eccentric called Old Boy who gives Jay tips on the QT from time to time, and from Samara Weaving as Peggy, the widow of a cop, Bobby Rogers, who was murdered and who it seems was on the same trail as Jay now is. But it has to be admitted, too, that there’s some pretty patchy acting among the smaller roles—hardly surprising, bearing in mind the size of the cast.

Jack Charles as Old Boy.

Ryan Kwanten as Pete Bailey.

Damian Walshe-Howling as Wayne.

Director Ivan Sen also wrote the screenplay, composed the soundtrack, was director of photography and edited—I haven’t dug through each and every last credit to see if he did anything else. The score’s actually pretty good without ever being obtrusive, and my quibbles about the direction/screenplay and cinematography are minor ones: sometimes the movie’s leisurely, methodical pacing seemed to become not so much leisurely as labored, and I got a little weary of the vertiginously high outdoor shots that seemed to be de rigueur just about every time Jay drove around town from one place to another. I guess in the latter case the aim was to show us how ass-end-of-nowhere the town was despite the imposing frontage of its police station.

In 2016 Sen made a sequel to Mystery Road that I haven’t seen (but plan to): Goldstone. It too stars Aaron Pedersen—fast becoming one of my favorites of the current crop of Australian actors—as Detective Jay Swan. He reprised the role again in the 2018 TV miniseries Mystery Road, set chronologically between the two feature movies; this time the director was Rachel Perkins.

4 thoughts on “Mystery Road (2013)

  1. A great write-up of an excellent film, a real slow burner. I was lucky enough to see a preview screening of the follow-up, Goldstone, at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago, and Ivan Sen was there to answer questions in person. I think he’s particularly interested in the experiences of members of the indigenous community and the struggles they experiences in gaining justice.

    • I was lucky enough to see a preview screening of the follow-up, Goldstone, at the London Film Festival a couple of years ago, and Ivan Sen was there to answer questions in person.

      I remember you mentioning this before, Jacqui. There’s no need to rub it in that the rest of us weren’t so lucky! 🙂 I do seriously envy you.

      I think he’s particularly interested in the experiences of members of the indigenous community and the struggles they experiences in gaining justice.

      I have one or two other Oz movies on the stacks that address this same issue, and plan to get to when I do. One that I watched and loved a few months ago but inexplicably didn’t write up for here was Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017).

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