Goldstone is director Ivan Sen’s follow-up to his 2013 outback thriller Mystery Road, and superior in every way.
At the core of Australian director Ivan Sen’s films is a lament for paradise lost, and an outrage at the corruption of innocents. Indigenous characters figure prominently, typically dispossessed of their land and therefore spiritually disconnected, and prone to self-destructive behaviour. They are the fallen. The landscape is presented as spoilt and scarred, yet beautiful in its enduring natural grandeur.
So it is in Goldstone, his follow-up to his first genre film, Mystery Road. Goldstone is a dot of a town in the remote outback desert wilderness that owes its existence to a secretive open-cut mining project nearby. We see little of the mine, but its presence looms ominous and large throughout the film. It’s located at Furnace Creek (no accident that the name has hellish connotations), fenced off and under the jurisdiction of the mine owners. It’s a weeping sore gouged out of the terrain, a violation perpetrated by a corporation that seeks only to exploit, intent on ripping bucks from the land whatever the human and environmental toll.
The human cost is borne by the local indigenous people, and groups of Asian women trafficked as prostitutes to service the miners. The former have sold out to the mining company, led by one of their own, a corrupt Aboriginal land council rep, Tommy (Tom E. Lewis). The latter, emerging bewildered and disorientated from a light plane, are made to work off their “debts” in back rooms at the local pub under the watchful eye of their Chinese madam. Photographs of early Chinese gold rush immigrants feature in the film’s introduction, suggesting parallels between marginalised Asians of Australia’s past and these trafficking victims. Given the resounding success of Australia’s Asian immigration post the Vietnam War, this implied link between past and present seems forced and counterproductive.
The ruthless mining company boss (David Wenham) and mayor of Goldstone (Jackie Weaver) have the town in a stranglehold. In on the trafficking racket and a lot more besides, they are driven by material greed, morally bankrupt. One-dimensional bad guy characters like these with no redeeming qualities are not easy roles for actors to work, too often slipping into caricature, but Wenham does a fine job, radiating a casual menace that is distinctly Aussie, and quite chilling.
Weaver is less successful as an apple pie-baking, hideously smiling manipulator whose modus operandi is to combine reward/bribe with thinly veiled threat. She comes across as a cartoonish version of the lethal matriarch she played so brilliantly in Animal Kingdom. To be fair, she doesn’t have a lot to work with here. Her character doesn’t have a logical place in the narrative (why would there be a mayor in a tiny settlement like Goldstone, and why would a powerful figure like the mining company boss take her on as an equal partner in crime?). The only real function of her character is to add colour, and this she does well enough.
Into this viper’s nest comes Aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), the lead character in Mystery Road, who has been sent to Goldstone to investigate a missing person case. He’s much the worse for wear since we last saw him. Rotten drunk and in shabby civvies, he’s pulled over by the local cop, Josh (Alex Russell), as he approaches Goldstone. Ushered into the back of the police van, he is poured into a cell to sleep it off.
Any thoughts Swan might have had of winding up a routine investigation and getting back to civilisation pronto are dispelled when his caravan is shot up by a bunch of bikers wielding assault weapons. He may have lost his way personally (his daughter, who was on the slide in Mystery Road, has died), but his moral compass and professionalism are very much intact, compelling him to hang around and rid the town of its bad eggs.
His resolve hardens when a local elder, Jimmy (David Gulpilil), is found hanged, suspected murdered, after taking a stand on land rights that threatens to halt the operation of the mine. Swan joins forces with Josh, who has learned more about the plight of the prostitutes through personal interaction with one of them, and is no longer prepared to turn a blind eye to the dirty dealings going on under his watch. Thus the stage is set for an inevitable showdown between the good guys and the bad.
Taking a lead from the promo blurb, a host of reviewers has referred to the film as a “noir western.” Sure, there are elements of noir on show here, and the film borrows its narrative form from the western, but categorising Goldstone thus is reductive. The work is too complex to be contained to simple labelling. It’s a western metamorphosed into something new, something quintessentially Australian. And while it works as a gripping thriller, there is a lot going on figuratively, also. The entire film might be read as a metaphor for the nation and its history as seen through indigenous eyes. It’s impressive that Sen has managed to merge the literal with the figurative without compromising the film’s entertainment value.
There is nothing noir about the lighting. The spectacular cinematography – always a strong point of Sen’s work – is characterised by vibrant colours and an outback clarity. As with Mystery Road, there are wide shots of the undulating plains, and spectacular aerial takes of gun-barrel-straight roads scoring the red desert. I don’t recall any American western shot like this.
The landscape is treated almost as a character. The indifference of the white characters to its beauty is projected in the open-cut mine, a desecration that is contrasted with a magical gorge of surreally shaped rock, adorned with ancient aboriginal painting, one of the secrets of the land revealed to Swan by the Gupilil elder character. The movie ends with Swan, having learned of his ancestral connection with the region, kayaking through the still, deep waters at the base of the gorge. It’s a tantalising thought that Sen is setting up another sequel. Certainly, there is plenty of mileage left in the Swan character.
One thing for sure: there’s no one better to play him than Aaron Pedersen. The camera loves the bloke, and so will audiences. He’s a star of the first order, excelling in this demanding role. Alex Russell is a worthy foil, steering Josh through a convincing developmental arc. In combining forces, these two good guys bring about a reconciliation of indigenous and white borne of common purpose and morality, which resonates on both a dramatic and symbolic level.
Goldstone is more ambitious, complex and sophisticated than its predecessor, Mystery Road, and stumbles at a few points. But Sen’s talent as a filmmaker has never been in doubt, and if he continues to progress at his current rate, he may be only a film away from realising his enormous potential with something very special.
Movie website: http://goldstonethemovie.com/
For a complete list of films reviewed here see Movie Review Archives
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