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Australian Rural Noir Gets Its Next Engrossing Mystery with Book-to-Screen Crime Drama 'Scrublands'

Starring Luke Arnold, Bella Heathcote and Jay Ryan, this gripping four-part series is based on Chris Hammer's novel.
By Sarah Ward
November 30, 2023
By Sarah Ward
November 30, 2023

There's no forgetting the opening moments of Scrublands, Australia's latest rural noir entry. For viewers streaming along via Stan, where the four-part series is available in full, there's no chance of not being instantly hooked, either. After an otherwise ordinary Sunday congregation, as his worshippers disperse slowly from his rural church's car park, Riversend priest Byron Swift (Jay Ryan, Muru) starts shooting with a sniper rifle. Five locals — farmers Alf (Fletcher Humphreys, The Stranger) and Tom Newkirk (Scott Major, Heartbreak High), shop owner Craig Landers (Martin Copping, The Dunes), mechanic Hugh Grosvenor (debutant Ben de Pagter) and accountant Gerry Torlini (Adam Morgan, The Royal Hotel) — are killed, with the man of the cloth not living out the fray himself.

After that introduction, the bulk of Scrublands picks up a year later as the small, remote and deeply drought-stricken town is still attempting to live with an event that it'll never get over. In drives journalist Martin Scarsden (Luke Arnold, True Colours), who has been dispatched from Sydney to write about the situation 12 months after the unthinkable occurred. Capturing the colour of the situation is his remit, in an article that his Sydney Morning Herald editor wants for weekend supplement reading, and is also meant to be Scarsden's easy way back to the job after a traumatic last assignment. To the shock of no one but the investigative reporter, his welcome is mixed. It also won't astonish viewers that the journo's time interrogating the truth behind the tragedy proves anything but straightforward and uneventful — and neither director Greg McLean (Jungle) nor screenwriters Felicity Packard (Ms Fisher's Modern Murder Mysteries), Kelsey Munro (Bump) and Jock Serong (a scripting debutant) expect that basic framework to come as a surprise.

Scrublands remains a mystery; however, it's the why that haunts its frames, not the who. That question lingers over the townsfolk that cross Scarsden's path, although there's already been an official tale since the massacre occurred. In the rubber-stamped version doing the rounds and fuelling news headlines, abuse allegations were levelled at Swift just days before the incident. So, in external law enforcement's minds, that's long been the case closed. But Scarsden is increasingly unconvinced. Far from writing the "torture porn" that he's initially accused of, he begins digging deeper, despite as much hostility about him endeavouring to unearth the facts swirling as surrounds to his presence in Riversend at all.

Bookstore and cafe proprietor Mandy Bond (Bella Heathcote, C*A*U*G*H*T), a single mum and the first local that Scarsden meets, swings from cordial to frosty and then more open. Police officers Robbie Haus-Jones (Adam Zwar, Squinters) and Monica Piccini (Freya Stafford, New Gold Mountain) vary in their cooperation. Resident chief landowner Harley Reagan (Robert Taylor, The Newsreader) is blunt but reluctant about imparting anything but his family's generational history in these parts. Among those who lost fathers and husbands — such as teenagers Allen Newkirk (Stacy Clausen, True Spirit) and Jamie Landers (Zane Ciarma, Neighbours), and the latter's mother Fran (Victoria Thaine, Nowhere Boys) — the response is equally as complicated. Recurring among most of Riversend's inhabitants: the certainty that the picture painted of the cleric that changed everything isn't what it seems.

The list of Australian films and TV shows that involve a big-city outsider galloping in to run through a regional area's problems, struggles and secrets is considerable, including The Dry, Black Snow, Limbo and Deadloch in recent years. Scrublands happily fits the bill. As those past movies and series have shown, and this page-to-screen effort based on Chris Hammer's novel as well, such a setup can provide the basis for weighty and compelling stories when presented with care, thought and style. McLean isn't in Wolf Creek or Wolf Creek 2 territory. While the eye-catching imagery that the filmmaker and his cinematographer Marden Dean (Clickbait) offer up can lean on familiar visual tropes, relying on standard formula isn't the approach overall. Any narrative scenario, no matter how well-used — including to the point where it feels like a national genre — can feel worth diving into when fleshed out with riveting details. Scrublands is a clear case in point.

This isn't a story backdropped by parched red earth as far as the eye can see, but by the dry scrubby landscape as the name suggests. Like picture, like themes, then. Emotional complexities between characters intertwine, spread and hook in like undergrowth, in that remote small-town way. In other series such as The Clearing and The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart as well, and in The Royal Hotel on the big screen, too, Australia's recent screen output has kept making plain the ties, secrets and lies that can bind when everyone knows everyone, or thereabouts — plus the thorns that lurk for outsiders. A sense of stifling often courses through Australia's rural noir efforts, even when filled with vast expanses. When it seems like all there is is space, often there's nowhere to run to.

As Scrublands' take on the interloper mining for answers, Arnold adds an arresting and grounded performance to a resume that flits from The Tunnel, Black Sails, Glitch and Home and Away to playing Michael Hutchence in Never Tear Us Apart: The Untold Story of INXS. This genre needs not only a gripping mystery but an involving protagonist, and TV's new addition ticks both boxes. While Ryan's casting as a charismatic and beloved priest, at least until he started gunning down parishioners, gives away that there's a twist to come involving Swift — and that the man of god won't just be seen in the series' introduction — he's still expertly deployed given the role's charming, empathetic and no-nonsense turns, as seen in flashbacks. And as Bond segues between the past and the present sections, Heathcote wears both hope and grief like a second skin.

Hammer, a former journalist himself, penned a rich and atmospheric novel that screamed to reach the screen. As well as the non-fiction The River and The Coast, both of which preceded 2018's Scrublands to bookshelves, he's also given Scarsden two more stints on the page so far: Silver in 2019 and Trust in 2020. Expect them both to appeal to streaming powers that be, giving Australia a new Jack Irish- and Mystery Road-like franchise. If Hammer's Ivan Lucic and Nell Buchanan novels — 2021's Treasure and Dirt, 2022's The Tilt and 2023's The Seven — also get the same treatment, that wouldn't be a surprise, either.

Check out the trailer for Scrublands below:

Scrublands streams via Stan.

Published on November 30, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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