Mystery Road

A new classic - an outback murder mystery with a rich tide of ideas unravelling and washing around the edges.
Lauren Carroll Harris
Published on 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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