Film review: Don’t miss Mystery Road
Mystery Road is a brooding psychological thriller set in North Western New South Wales, starring an all-star Australian cast led by Aaron Pederson, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Tasma Walton, Jack Thompson and David Field.
Writer/director Ivan Sen has been building to this film for 11 years with his three preceding features Beneath Clouds, Dreamland and Toomelah, showing a sturdy understanding of both dramatic tension and how to shoot the shit out of the Outback – albeit the American Outback in Dreamland.
A neo-western, Mystery Road takes cues from films such as No Country for Old Men while still maintaining a deep, Australian sense of self. A North Western NSW local, Sen knows too well the stories of how morally corrupt those dusty towns can turn when no one is looking – and until Aaron Pederson’s character, indigenous detective Jay Swan, returns from the city, it seems no one’s been looking for some time.
As an Indigenous cop Swan is considered a turn coat to his people yet he doesn’t get respect from his fellow law makers either, leaving him on the outside of everyone, including estranged wife Mary (Walton).
The film questions the social issues of drugs and alcohol both in adults and minors in Aboriginal communities. Swan’s first big case is the investigation of the murder of a young Indigenous girl, which quickly envelops his own daughter and runs close to nefarious types like Kwanten’s roo-shootin’ racist and his old man played by always-great bad guy David Field.
Inspiration was sadly not too hard to draw for Sen. Three of his female relatives were the victims of unsolved murders, one hauntingly close to the film’s victim. He told The Guardian: “All of the details come from reality. And reality is much darker than what is relayed in the film. I could have gone a lot further with it.”
However, fortunately for us, Sen recognises that to raise these issues with a wider audience the film still needed to be a fun thriller. And in spades he does that with tension between rival cop Weaving, a local drug dealer played by Damian Walshe-Howling and delicious cowboy-hat-tips to Westerns-past, including scenes almost straight out of a John Ford film Stagecoach… you know, except Swan’s stagecoach is a Holden.
Cinematic Renaissance man Sen does it all. As well as writing and directing he also edited the picture and wrote the score, but it’s his cinematography that’s the masterstroke. Like Indigenous cinematographer Warwick Thornton who wrote and directed the brilliant Samson & Delilah in 2009, and who’s an Alice Springs local, it’s clear these lensmen have grown up around their subjects and landscapes – it’s part of them. Theirs is a visual rendering of the cultural link of land and story together. From a reoccurring silhouetted theme of red on black dawn, as defined as an inverted Indigenous flag, to aerial shots mapping out the town, to the Western-styled show down (more subtle than drawing on 50 paces, but a showdown nonetheless) Mystery Road is a pleasure to watch. I was fortunate to see it in Cinema Two of the Entertainment Quarter’s Cinema Paris in Sydney. I say fortunate because it’s rare for an Australian indie screen in such a huge cinema. It complimented the film’s vastness perfectly. Sadly there were only four people in the big theatre. Sen however, not just an artiste but a businessman, has released the film himself with producer David Jowsey. Perhaps they crunched the numbers and know their return on investment would work best this way. The film made $59,853 across only 17 screens on its opening weekend, according to Mumbrella which makes for a respectable $3520 per screen, considering it’s had little marketing behind it.
Still, if my cinema was an indication of turnout (skewed admittedly by being a Monday at 9pm) it could mean the film all but disappears as of Thursday – an all too often occurrence when Australian films aren’t performing in their first week – they aren’t given the chance of word of mouth. And that would be a real shame, given Mystery Road is Australia’s best film in 2013.
Review by Colin Delaney.