Mystery Road Movie Review

Featuring: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Tony Barry, Ryan Kwanten, Tasma Walton, Jack Thompson, Jack Charles, Damian Walshe-Howling
Director: Ivan Sen
Writer: Ivan Sen
Australian release date: Thursday 17th October

Reviewers’ verdicts:
rolanstein: Stylish and well-acted, but uncomfortable in its skin and let down by a narrative shot through with logic flaws.
Karen: Mesmerising, masterful.

When Aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returns to his home town in outback Queensland after years in the “big smoke”, the first case he is assigned is the murder of a young indigenous woman, found in a culvert outside town with her throat slashed and canine bite marks on her body. Swan soon joins the dots with similar previous killings, which he links with a drug network operating a meth lab on a remote farming property. The stakes are raised when his estranged daughter’s name comes up as a possible drug user treading the same path as the murder victims. Regarded with suspicion by the local community and unable to trust any of his fellow officers, he is forced to go it alone, heading inexorably for a showdown with the drug crims.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
Familiar western setup here: straight lawman from the city encounters bad forces in small town, including corrupt fellow cops, and fights lone battle to take out the trash. Detective Swan’s aboriginality isolates him in this case, which of course is a distinctly Australian take, but any number of American flicks of the genre spring to mind: Shane, Who Shot Liberty Valance, virtually anything starring Clint Eastwood…and, of course, there are obvious similarities with the Australian contemporary western/thriller of a couple of years back, Red Hill.

Unfortunately, while Mystery Road is a few notches up on that disappointing national predecessor, it falls way short of the impressive standards set by director/writer/cinematographer/musical score composer Ivan Sen in previous works such as Beneath Clouds and Toomelah.

Visually, the film is stunning at times, particularly in the landscape shots. There is some spectacular aerial camerawork capturing the spatial grandeur of desolate, dusty outback flatlands, and a refrain throughout of straight roads reaching out to the horizon, the quiet rent with roadtrains and heavy trucks roaring past. Rough-driven cars spray gravel as they veer off-road on to cross-country dirt tracks, jetting a wake of twin dust plumes from rear tyres. Vintage Sen, then (if he’s been around long enough for that adjective to apply).

The performers do their bit. Aaron Pederson has built quite remarkably on some dodgy early efforts, carrying off a demanding lead role (he is rarely out of shot) that should serve notice to the industry that he is now a substantial and bankable asset. Hugo Weaving has never been better as inscrutable maverick cop Johnno (gotta wonder about his echolalia, though – ie: periodically repeating the concluding words of sentences – which seemed an unnecessary idiosyncrasy tacked on to add colour to an already superbly acted and intriguing character). Tony Barry could play his part as the alcoholic rule-bending country copshop sarge in his sleep; Ryan Kwanten is creepy and full of menace as a bad guy roo shooter; Jack Thompson makes the most of his cameo appearance as an oldtimer struggling to remember a vital clue…

The script is where the film comes undone. On the plus side, it’s well-paced: slow – as is life in this back-o-beyond town – but taut with tension, a sputtering fuse. As things progress, though, little details that don’t work keep popping up, gnawing away at the cred of the story.

Soon after the very impressive opening, for example, the copshop sergeant rolls up at a murder scene eating a just-unwrapped icecream. So how’d he keep it chilled when the site of the murder is outside town, huh? And wouldn’t he have finished it before he arrived? And what’s the point of the multiple cuts tracking his progress as he bites his way along the chocolate covered stick? Yeah, this guy is so seasoned that he can eat an icecream in the vicinity of a stinking decomposing corpse. We get it. Is it a point worth labouring?

It’s a mean-spirited exercise to harp on about the logic flaws when thrillers/detective yarns are typically full of ‘em, but this thing leaks worse than KRudd. And I can’t let the most glaring example go without comment. A dilapidated farm shed being used as a meth lab is set in the middle of nowhere in flat plain country. Several times, Swan is shown sitting in his car conducting surveillance on the ‘chemists’ as they come and go in the distance. His cover ranges from a scrappy skeletal bush to nothing at all. The crooks are clearly visible to him, and so must he be to them, yet they never notice him. Ditto when he follows another car out of town on otherwise empty roads. Ridiculous. Actually, unforgivable.

Then there are the dogs. Much is made of the canine bite mark on the murder victim, and there is conjecturing at least twice as to whether it is the work of wild or domesticated dogs. The coroner later advises that it is some huge mutt with peculiar DNA he can’t identify. And that’s as far as that little mystery goes. Too much focus on a red herring!

Sure, there are extra-narrative reasons for the dog references (eg: to demonstrate the folly of unsupported assumption; to suggest that there is a thin and not always readily discernible line between the wild and the tamed/civilised), but the figurative should reside comfortably within the literal, not compromise it by raising doubt about its place and purpose in the narrative. It seems that Sen’s natural proclivity for the poetic will not be contained, but is too often out of place within the parameters of the genre he has chosen to work in here. I’m not saying there is no place for lyricism in a piece like this, just that it needs to be worked in seamlessly and/or with expert sleight of hand. Going by the evidence on show here, Sen is a way off developing his writing to that level of sophistication.

True to generic convention, the action climaxes in a mother of a shootout, which is brilliantly shot and choreographed, and contains a nice twist, BUT because the entire film is shot from Swan’s point of view, we’ve learnt little or nothing about the bad guys (who have mostly remained out of his orbit) and are denied any real pleasure in seeing rough justice meted out (no spoiler there – we all know the generic traditions). We don’t even recognise some of them, as their bodies pile up. And it’s so damned over-the-top! In the best/worst Hollywood tradition, the vastly outnumbered protagonist somehow survives a fearsome sustained onslaught of gunfire from the terribly inaccurate bad guys, and…well, you can guess the rest. It’s fun, but with a little more thought and imagination applied, could have retained some credibility and thus been all the more exciting for being taken seriously.

Aboriginal communities and the forces that demean them are intrinsic to the story, but really, it’s pretty glib stuff in terms of social comment – Sen by numbers next to works like Toomelah. Yes, Mystery Road is a genre flick and therefore not comparable, but just sayin’…

Despite some stylish flourishes on the way through, this is not a particularly satisfying or successful excursion into genre filmmaking from one of the country’s most promising directing talents. Much will be read into the film by critics assuming the best and blinkered to anything other. For me, there’s no getting around it: this is a disappointing lapse from Sen. A good-lookin’ flick, but fatally flawed, uncomfortable in its skin and ultimately insubstantial.

Review 2: (Karen)
On an outback road in the dark pre-dawn, a truckie pulls over and gets out to check the tyres on his massive road train. He’s got a tyre lever and a torch, and beyond its pool of light is a menacing emptiness. The truckie hears the noise of something: a wild dog, we find out later; and perhaps he smells something, too. He goes off the road, flashing his torch around, and we see the name on a sign: Massacre Creek. We know what happens at creeks in the Australian bush. Get back in the truck, man, and drive!

Well, he doesn’t, of course. He finds the body of a young indigenous girl, and calls the police, and the story gets rolling. But this opening sequence is a cracker – one with a long, slow-burning fuse, that is – at establishing the uneasy tone of Mystery Road, using all of writer, director, cinematographer and composer Ivan Sen’s considerable skills.

It matches the unease of the main character, our hero Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), an indigenous man and newly minted detective, who has returned to the place where he grew up, married and had a child, and who doesn’t know where he fits, either personally or professionally.

The unease is maintained throughout the film with tight framing that makes you fear what you can’t see. It’s beautifully lit and filmed, not least in portrait-quality shots of the character actors: Jack Thompson, looking perhaps a little fresh faced and clean for an old fella who has lost his wife, his dog, his car and finally his memory, but an artful portrait nonetheless; and Hugo Weaving, aging beautifully into an iconic Australian eccentric like Jack, but way less hokey.

Sen renders the Australian landscape in a muted, bleached palette that feels just right. When he pulls back it’s to place the characters geographically, sometimes with an overhead shot that often shows Jay driving through the town, always heading somewhere, but never quite sure where he’ll get to. The sense of country is repeated in occasional indigenous artworks on the walls of various interiors.

The story is economically told. The murder investigation is just one part of police operations in the area. There’s a local drug squad, and the possibility that some of the cops are crooked. The metaphor about wild dogs recurs: there are real dogs in the story, and some folk who are just filthy mongrels. But Jay isn’t sure who they are.

Conversations are laconic. You have to listen and concentrate. A scene at the family farm of the sergeant (Tony Barry), in which Jay and the sarge watch the latter’s grandchild ride a pony and talk about a horse tethered in the paddock, is more than chitchat about family and horseflesh. This economical style is elegant but difficult. Nobody shows their hand so you have to work hard to keep up with the logic and the possibilities. It’s doubly hard because Jay doesn’t have a sidekick or a confidant, so there’s no opportunity in the script for him to spell out what he’s thinking.

But what is not said is all the more powerful. The murder investigation comes close to home when Jay realises his daughter was a friend of the murdered girl. She’s in danger from the same circumstances there, and generally from her home life with his alcoholic ex-wife (Tasma Walton). When Jay suggests to his daughter that he could try to get her a job – say, in a dress shop – she asks, not scornfully, and without hope, “What would I do in a dress shop?” and father and daughter sit wretchedly in silence.

The race issue is not just a part of this film but informs it wholly, in the situations, retrospect and prospect of all the characters, and lends gravity and social relevance to the cop thriller narrative. I loved Sen’s previous features Beneath Clouds and Toomelah, and hope this film finds a wider audience beyond the arthouse.

Not that it’s without flaw: there were some parts I found unfortunately laughable. When Jay follows a colleague, or drives out to recce some dodgy dealings in a remote shed, nobody seems to spot him, despite otherwise deserted streets, and plain lines of sight across flat country. I also found the climax and denouement unsatisfactory for reasons I can’t explain without spoilers.

I reckon Ivan Sen is a master filmmaker. Go and see Mystery Road, and let me know if you agree.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

2 thoughts on “Mystery Road Movie Review”

  1. Geez, this is terrible, I’m going to agree with you!

    The dog DNA nonsense (but no mention of DNA from the girl’s body?!), the bad guys not spotting Jay parked in his own car a hundred metres away in plain view, the lock-stock-and-two-smoking-barrels style ending … A good script editor would have sorted this and lifted Mystery Road up to the next level.

    But the cinematography! The soundtrack! The editing! Bloody excellent.


  2. Hi Karen,

    I wasn’t quite as enraptured with the soundtrack as you – for me, it was certainly OK as a mood-setter, but didn’t draw attention to itself as special. With you all the way on the cinematography. Not sure what you’re referring to particularly re the editing.

    And yeah, we also agree about the shortfalls of the script and the glaring need for a decent script editor.

    I guess we weight things differently in our overall assessments, but otherwise – gulp, nothing to argue about!

    Thought your review was excellent, BTW, weighting differences notwithstanding.


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