Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Directed by: Ivan Sen
Starring: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Jack Thompson, Ryan Kwanten
The centerpieces of every London Film Festival are the gala screenings, celebrating the very best films in each of the festival’s individual categories. Making a leap from films focused on present-day Australian society to genre pieces, director Ivan Sen’s thriller attempts to blend his talent for exploring community segregation with a slow-burning story of murder in the Outback. Both beautiful and admirable, Mystery Road unfortunately falls victim to narrative and balance, with Sen’s conventional story offering few moments of originality and his exploration of contemporary themes continually hampered by an overcrowded group of central characters.
Disappointingly formulaic and consistently plodding, Sen’s story is the weakest element of a film that he wrote, shot, directed, edited and composed the score for. It is on the titular stretch of highway that the director’s story begins, with the discovery of young girl whose throat has been cut. Jay Swan is the big city cop who has returned to his hometown and been charged with leading the investigation. As his investigation draws him deeper in to an underworld run by drugs and corruption, Swan begins to find himself in over his head as the secrets of Mystery Road brings him closer and closer to home.
Determined to cover the similar social problems he confronted in his previous works, Sen sets his tale in a community divided by race and unequal in wealth. Such themes require a substantial amount of exploration to make them effective, but here Sen seems only content with brushing upon them. Instead, the indigenous director spends an obscene amount of time focused on his substantial cast, forcing exposition to the point that the social themes highlighted begin to feel irrelevant.
In one of his biggest film roles to date, Aaron Pedersen gives a solid performance, but suffers from Sen’s unfocused script. Despite being the film’s lead, Jay Swan merely feels like a device to get us from one area of the film’s mystery to another and is never really given a well-defined story arc. On the screen, Pedersen is outdone by the brilliant support of acting veterans that include Hugo Weaving and Jack Thompson. Weaving in particular stands out; his carefully constructed character is continually shrouded in suspicion, giving the few scenes he’s in an exciting intensity that elevates the film’s tone.
Sen may not have such an excellent talent for creating story, but his skills in other areas of filmmaking are plain to see. Most notable is his spectacular gift behind the camera, which captures the sheer vastness of the Australian outback. Juxtaposed with his fantastic score that mixes diegetic sounds with building non-diegetic music, Sen’s film has a tense uneasiness about it that draws you further in to what becomes a carelessly predictable mystery.
Visually breathtaking and huge in scope, Ivan Sen’s attempt to mix social realism with such a well-worn genre can’t help but leave you disappointed; unable to produce the sort of expert blend of excitement and comment you expect from an LFF gala.