Mystery Road does, as the title suggests, concern a mystery of sorts. An indigenous teenage girl is found murdered on the outskirts of an outback Aussie town, and Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen, fantastic) investigates. His inquiries turn over dusty rocks, disturbing the dark creatures from their hiding places. In spirit of noirs like Chinatown or more recent films such as Winter’s Bone, the investigation is as much into the identity of this place and Jay himself as it is about finding the culprit.
Director/writer Ivan Sen has an abiding interest in indigenous issues, issues that pulse beneath this film like an arterial flow, Jay finding himself adrift between the demands of “law and order” and the expectations of the indigenous community. But Mystery Road is not some dry reflection on this topic, but rather a brilliant genre film. The characters are all larger than life, exaggerated to suit genre tropes yet grounded in reality. Jay himself inhabits the classical western “lone wolf” archetype, less because of a rugged desire for independence than an inability to belong to either world.
Sen works economically, demonstrating craft and insight. The storytelling is executed with an arresting economy; the details of the case are suggested in glances and single shots – I admit to being slightly lost on the details, but fully engaged (it reminds me of L.A. Confidential, a film whose intricacies require multiple viewings to fully comprehend).
The cinematography is understated, outside of some spectacular, deific aerial shots as Jay drives through the town, navigating its twisted, mysterious geography. A sense of resignation looms. The sun hangs heavy in the air, bestowing an ashen, sun-bleached starkness; light without warmth.
It’s distinguished by its attention to detail, its wan beauty. The cast is impressive – Pedersen in particular conveys the weight of history and expectation weighing on his shoulders with an understated, perfectly-judged performance, and he’s joined by the like of Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Tasma Walton and Australian acting mainstays Jack Thompson and Bruce Spence, each in relatively small roles.
Mystery Road manages to work within and without of the genre traditions of noir, westerns and police dramas, but with a thoughtfulness that takes it beyond merely engaging or entertaining its audience. This is a film that has embedded within it the Australian identity and an interrogation of that identity; the identity of a young country angrily grappling with race and inequality and searching for deeper meaning. Mystery Road is an exemplary representation of Australian cinema – but more importantly, simply an excellent film.