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Mystery Road Review

Mystery Road Review

mystery-road-posterGenre: Mystery, Thriller

Directed by: Ivan Sen

Starring: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Jack Thompson

Like dusk and dawn Detective Jay Swan exists between two worlds. To the segregated community from which he comes he’s the turncoat, a black tracker selling out his own people. To many of the white inhabitants of his hometown he’s little more than a wild dog with a badge on. This yawning divide in Australian society and the isolation enforced on anyone who dares to venture into it lies at the heart of Mystery Road, Ivan Sen’s absorbing thriller.

Equality may exist nominally but this is an outback community of two. White and black simply don’t mix. At least not in daylight. What goes on when the sun drops down is a different matter. It’s an unpleasant crime, one that no one wants solved that brings Detective Swan (Aaron Pedersen) into the mix. When an Aboriginal girl is found murdered out on Mystery Road, he’s handed the investigation, his first since returning from the big city.

On the surface, his colleagues, including a wonderfully slimy Hugo Weaving, all smile at him but no one wants to help. They don’t want him there at all. That’s still a better reaction than the one he receives from the openly racist white farmers and aboriginal community bitter that, in their eyes, he’s switched sides. As he begins to peel back the murky layers surrounding the murder, Swan finds himself in the world of disenfranchised prostitution, drugs and death, all wrapped up in a conspiracy to keep it hidden. It’s not law and order that anyone other than Swan wants. The semblance of it is enough.

Sen’s gaze is fixed firmly on the rotten heart of Australia as seen through the eyes of Swan. It’s Swan, and Pedersen’s accomplished portrayal, that strings the sparse murder mystery together. His professional passivity in the face of mounting provocation allows Sen to show the way both sides think about each other, and the way they treat anyone who attempts to cross between worlds. His dogged determination drives him forward into the dark corners most people fear to tread.
He’s more than just a bright light turned on a society due exposure though. Swan’s struggle to juggle a career no one wants him to succeed in, with a past he’s no longer permitted to have, is skilfully observed. He may have few friends in the police department but any awkwardness there pales in comparison to his stilted interactions with his daughter Crystal (Tricia Whitton). As it becomes all the more likely that she is going to become embroiled in his case, he has new impetus to push him on even though he remains incapable of sharing any of this with her.

The Australian outback has always offered an imposing environment and Mystery Road makes sure to capture this. The story unfolds slowly, the camera content to soak up the intimidatingly barren countryside. Swan’s own in-between status is echoed by the setting, Sen dwelling on the dusk. In one extended stakeout scene, he sits watching patiently as the sun slides down the horizon plunging the landscape into the ill-defined state so familiar to Swan.

Not everything has to happen slowly. After ploughing a lone furrow for much of the film, Swan emerges to find a particularly violent light at the end of the tunnel. Exploding suddenly into gunfire, an exceptionally visceral shootout spreads across vehicles and long-range marksmen bringing events to a sharp conclusion. There’s a terrifying sense of reality as bullets slam loudly into the thin exterior of Swan’s car. Even more nerve-wracking is a shootout between two marksmen who fire in turn, barely moving when the bullets skim off stone and shatter branches around them.

As comfortable as Mystery Road is handling complex themes, there is a weakness hardwired into its foundations. The murder mystery and Swan’s subsequent investigation is a tepid affair. Plot developments pop up as if from nowhere to break an otherwise absorbing experience. There is simply not enough content leaving the story to flutter around in the wind waiting for Swan to tie it to firmer moorings.

Luckily, that’s a task that Sen has equipped him to achieve for the most part. Mystery Road suffers as a pure crime thriller only to be redeemed by the depth of the wider world Swan ventures into and the problems he unearths while there. Cracks may appear from time to time but Sen’s visual style and Pedersen’s commanding performance are more than capable of filling them in.


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