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Mystery Road

A new classic - an outback murder mystery with a rich tide of ideas unravelling and washing around the edges.
By Lauren Carroll Harris
October 14, 2013
By Lauren Carroll Harris
October 14, 2013

Bury all your preconceived notions of Australian films being dry, cerebral art-house wankfests. Mystery Road is the real thing. Writer, director, composer, cinematographer and visionary filmmaker Ivan Sen has delivered a new classic, an outback murder mystery with a rich tide of ideas unravelling and washing around the edges.

Mystery Road is a masterclass in first-rate Australian acting. Hugo Weaving plays the kind of male role typical of a Lars Von Trier film: not a villain but a seriously messed-up, creepy bastard. Ryan Kwanten is a diabolically suss and casually racist roo-shooter. But it's Aaron Pedersen who carries the film with a devastating performance as Detective Jay Swan. He's a cowboy, a superman, a protector of a marginalised and deeply suspicious community, and an outsider in an uncaring, corrupt police establishment.

Investigating the murder of a young Aboriginal woman, he unearths a trail of prostitution, drug rings and deep social dysfunction in his outback, ex-mission town. With each new body that's found, we feel his heart sink with sorrow — he doesn't have the comfort of distance enjoyed by his white copper colleagues. He's between two worlds, as is Mystery Road itself — it's a small movie but a big story to rival any Hollywood Western, with the desire to speak to a mass audience.

The unavoidable political themes and Indigenous cultural perspectives are tethered to the recognisable narrative of a police procedural, making this a familiar but strange viewing experience. It works because it springs from Sen's experience growing up and just hanging out in down-and-out regional towns that have fallen off Australia's map: where the forgotten and poor are fatally vulnerable and totally absent from the national conversation.

You might not recognise this set of life-experiences, but you'll recognise the Australianisms — the old-school, sweet-and-sour-pork Chinese restaurant; the characters' casually cagey glances; the quietly funny, laconic turns of phrase. These are all the details of a master storyteller.

Mystery Road's slow-beating pulse finally riptides to a heart-stoppingly tense shoot-out. As the film's rhythms crested and fell, I found no easy explanations, no Hollywood signposts, just a genre piece of great complexity, subtlety and sophistication, and troubling beauty. This is an important film, a stunningly entertaining one, and a great one.

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