This is one of the most interesting films released so far in the UK this year. Writer/director/cinematographer Ivan Sen sets out his intentions like this:
From the writing stage, I wanted Mystery Road to have a timeless, classical feel. A feel that was reminiscent of Hollywood films of the 60s and 70s which were more dialogue based and relied little on music and trickery. I wanted this film to have a quiet, almost trance like atmosphere, where the music became the words spoken from the characters. (Press Pack)
Sen refers to his film as a ‘murder mystery’ but I’m not sure that is the most useful descriptor of its possible categories/genres. It’s certainly ‘crime fiction’ and a ‘police procedural’ which explores the classic trope of the loner police officer seemingly up against not just the bad guys, but also the local community and his own police colleagues. The setting is an outback town in Western Queensland, a town with a significant indigenous Australian community. Jay Swan is himself an indigenous Australian (I’ll use ‘Aboriginal’ from here in since that’s the term Sen himself uses in the Press Pack) who has gone to the city to become a detective. He has returned to his home town and a spacious house on the ‘right’ side of town. His ex-wife and teenage daughter are still living on the ‘estate’ on the ‘wrong’ side. The crime fiction is flavoured like the recent Nordic variety with an exploration of the social issues of the outback communities.
Jay’s first big case is the murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl (and a friend of his daughter). He soon becomes aware of the lack of co-operation he can expect from everyone. In many ways he’s like the new sheriff in the classic Western. According to the producer David Jowsey:
Mystery Road is a Cowboy Western film, and that evolved through determining the look and the attitude of the lead character. Aaron [Pedersen] was always going to be the lead in the film . . . and Ivan wanted Aaron looking like a cowboy. He wears a cowboy hat, he slings a pistol and he’s wearing cowboy boots. Once that was established the film itself became a Western.
Having these clear signals means that there is none of the confusion (for me at least) found in Ivan Sen’s previous film Toomelah (2011). On that film, Sen worked with non-professionals and because he didn’t want a full crew to intimidate them he performed all the production roles himself. By necessity, this gave the film with its hand-held camerawork a rough look. Mystery Road by contrast gives Sen the cinematographer a full supporting crew (and the budget to include several aerial sequences) as well as a cast stuffed with Australian stars of film and television – including a cameo appearance by the veteran star of 1970s Australian cinema, Jack Thompson. They all do an excellent job.
The Western and procedural tropes are well-used. Jay’s role as the detective refers to the figure of the Aboriginal ‘tracker’ in earlier Australian generic narratives – often used ‘against’ his own people. This kind of ‘turncoat’ character also turns up in American Westerns with the Native American tracker or, more recently, the Native American detective (e.g. in Thunderheart (1992)). Further parallels can be found in African-American police procedurals such as Charles Burnett’s The Glass Shield (1994). The clearest Western references are in the iconography of hat and boots, the glorious landscape shots and in the almost intimate scenes between characters, shot in close-up, in bars, interrogation rooms and over fences. True to his intentions, Sen allows dialogue and camerawork to make the narrative ‘sing’ – though there are also sound effects like the howling of the wild dogs (real or imagined).
I’ve looked around for writing on the film and I came across this piece on ‘Ferdy on Film’ an American blog (but I think that the writer might be Australian). Roderick Heath offers a very detailed review of the film (perhaps too much detail if you want to avoid narrative spoilers) in the context of genre filmmaking in Australia. While praising many aspects of the film he finds the dialogue weak and argues that Sen can’t effectively marry a genre piece with something ‘artier’ – citing the obvious naming of locations amongst other flaws. (The body is found near ‘Massacre Creek’ off ‘Mystery Road’ and the film ends on ‘Slaughter Hill’.) I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s probably something to do with film reviews. I just accept the dialogue for what it is and similarly the use of names, visual clues etc. Heath gives an example of of weak dialogue:
Sen’s ear for dialogue remains occasionally weak and largely humourless. Even as he tries admirably to create scenes charged with a constant—perhaps too constant—sense of elusive, cryptic menace, he undercuts the effect with clanger exposition lines like, “But then, your old man was the head stockman around here for ages,” when a rancher comments on Swan’s eye for horse flesh.
The narrative point here is that we need to know various things about Jay’s background. Some of them we can pick up easily from what we see – Jay doesn’t drink alcohol for instance. This is re-inforced by a comment his ex-wife makes suggesting he used to drink heavily. The knowledge about Jay’s father could have been given via a photograph perhaps, but the dialogue exchange is quite subtle I think. The rancher is a racist who is quietly goading Jay, here pointing out that he knows exactly who Jay is – and implicitly pointing to a local hierarchy. Later in the exchange Jay will ask the rancher how much land he has – in order to point out that he has much to leave to his children whereas the locals like Jay’s father have little to leave to their children (except the Winchester rifle, a heavily significant bequest by Jay’s father to his son). I loved these quiet but menacing exchanges, but perhaps that’s just a personal taste.
Audiences across the world have learned how to read Westerns and American film noirs but these Australian outback narratives require cultural knowledge that is difficult to pick up except from similar films. Sometimes it’s the white Australians who seem the most mysterious. There is a sequence in Mystery Road in which Jay goes out to meet an old man who had filed a report about wild dogs near Mystery Road. These eight minutes with Jack Thompson don’t seem to have any direct bearing on the crime narrative (and the wild dogs are similarly not fully ‘explained’). Perhaps the Thompson cameo is just a character study that fills in the background? I was reminded of the eccentric figures who inhabit the wonderful Wake in Fright (Australia 1971) re-released in the UK in the last year. There is a tendency amongst critics to want to separate genre from ‘arthouse’ so that the lacunae of the latter should not ‘spoil’ the purity of the former. Personally, I like my genre films to have layers and to present puzzles that can’t be resolved in just a single viewing. Mystery Road is going to be worth seeing a second time and possibly a third. Thoroughly recommended, the film (from the small distributor Axiom) is only likely to stay briefly in cinemas where the big screen brings out the best from the cinematography – so see it now if you can.
Here’s a trailer but note that the music isn’t there in the film itself and the trailer over-emphasises the action. But it does give a good idea of the landscape!