Goldstone, Ivan Sen’s sequel to 2013’s Mystery Road, begins with sepia-toned photographs of Australia’s past. White families gathered around dining room tables. Gold miners dusted with grime. Indigenous children bedecked in white frocks. A procession of Chinese immigrants walking through the centre of a mining town. These photographs simultaneously hint at Goldstone’s allegorical intent as they remind us of our country’s past.
Australia has a dirty history. I grew up in a Victorian region that could largely credit its existence to the nineteenth century ‘gold rush’, and spent my primary schooling hearing stories about the era overlaid with a thick nostalgic haze. The realities of the era – the capitalistic greed motivated by extreme poverty, the devastation of native peoples’ land, the government’s financial exploitation of miners (especially Chinese immigrants) – was obscured by the lustrous shine of gold. Even the Eureka Stockade – the closest Australia’s come to a full-blown revolution – was romanticised as our classes skipped through the streets of Sovereign Hill.
Right from its title and those opening photographs, Goldstone establishes itself an allegory for the parallels between Australia’s recent mining boom and its history of gold mining. Sen tells the story of the titular town, a tiny community ruled by the whims of the Furnace Creek Metals Group, who plunder the surrounding wilderness for rich veins of gold while poisoning the community with booze, corruption and worse.
As in Sen’s previous film, the most prominent thematic throughline is that of the exploitation of the Aboriginal people, whose land rights FCMG attempt to overcome through a bitter concoction of bribery and murder. Here, that’s paired with a reflection on Australia’s historic mistreatment of women and Chinese immigrants alike. The impetus for Goldstone’s story is Jay Swan’s (Aaron Pedersen’s) search for a missing girl – a search that soon leads him to a human trafficking ring flying indebted Chinese girls in and out of Goldstone to serve as prostitutes for the local miners. The combined effect is deeply pessimistic. Goldstone reinforces how modern mining repeats the mistakes of centuries prior, motivated by racism and greed alike.
Like Mystery Road, Sen uses a genre framework to stage his politics. However, the approach is inverted here. Where Mystery Road was primarily a neo-noir slash western, content to subsume its political subtext to prioritise a thrilling gunfight or tense confrontation, Goldstone uses the familiar tropes of noir and westerns to emphasis its ruminations on Australia’s past and present. The film is able to take shortcuts on characterisation by gentle leaning into cliché, and to accentuate its message of small town intolerance and big scale corruption by evoking the memory of films like Bad Day at Black Rock, Chinatown and Once Upon a Time in the West.
The plots of the two films are undeniably similar. Each revolve around missing/murdered girls. Each sees Swan treated with scepticism by his fellow police officers; here, it’s Alex Russell as Josh, Goldstone’s morally-conflicted, pseudo-corrupt cop. Each introduces a mysterious criminal element who aren’t slow to bring out their shotguns. Tonally the similarities are equally apparent; Goldstone is dominated by the same ominous aerial shots that signalled the centrality of the land Mystery Road, and at one point even recreates that symbolic scene where Swan gets target practice aiming at beer bottles.
It’s not just helicopter footage that helps remind the audience of the importance of the land to the story being told here. The screenplay is dominated by talk of rocks and dirt and earth. Jacki Weaver’s mayor – imbued with the same grandmotherly villainy of her Oscar-nominated Animal Kingdom performance, all brightly-lipsticked smiles and glossy apple cakes – warns Swan about small rocks making big ripples. David Wenham’s unctuous mine manager gleefully surveys devastating detonations at the local quarry. “This land, you belong to it,” Maria (Ursula Yovich) tells Swan, whose family hails from the Goldstone region.
The bluntness of the dialogue is occasionally a liability. When sex worker/slave May (Michelle Lim Davidson) contemplates escape, her madam, Mrs Lao (Pei-Pei Cheng) offers philosophy rather than overt threats to dissuade her. “This world was not made for you,” Lao chides her. “You were made for it.” As an expression of the film’s themes – its fatalism, the concept of servitude to the earth – it’s an important line, but its artificiality chafes with the naturalism of Pedersen’s taciturn grunts and glares. Even more egregious are the conversations between Josh and May, which prioritise profundity over naturalism.
That’s part and parcel with Goldstone’s overtly political approach. To be fair to Sen, these themes aren’t intended to be subtle. It’s somewhat refreshing to see an Australian feature so unapologetic in its goals (rather than, as with many of its non-documentary contemporaries, cautiously tiptoeing around real issues). But sometimes I couldn’t help but feel that the kind of subtlety that defined Mystery Road would’ve made for a better film.
This is not to suggest that the entirety of the film is blatantly didactic, mind. While the handling of Josh and May’s relationship or the corruption of Aboriginal elder Tommy (Tommy Lewis) might have benefited from a lighter touch, there’s plenty of subtler elements enriching Goldstone’s approach. Take the way Wenham and Weaver’s office and homes, respectively, incorporate Aboriginal art into their décor. When contrasted with the ancient ochre hand paintings that Jimmy (David Gulpilil) reveals to Swan, hidden away from whitefella eyes deep in the mountains, these images are an effective representation of the commodification and even corruption of Indigenous works – without the need for explicit underlining in the dialogue.
The best thing about Goldstone, though, has to be the economical performance of Pedersen. Bearing a scraggly beard, he complicates the gruff masculine heroism established in the first film. Noirs and westerns alike are fond of alcoholic protagonists; Swan’s accumulating pile of tallies evaporates the false romanticism of boozy gunslingers, particularly in the midst of a ‘dry’ community. It’s fitting that he shares the screen with Gulpilil, however briefly, as he shares that actor’s knack for conveying emotionality with the slightest gestures.
Goldstone begins by acknowledging Australia’s dirty history, and ultimately presents a pessimistic portrait of the country today. A country still defined by the environment and ethical desolation wrought by mining, a country still defined by racism enacted on its native people and its immigrants alike. But Goldstone is not entirely absent optimism. The film’s final moments stray away from the gold mines and demountable communities to those ochre hand paintings, an important reminder that our country’s history begins long before the first gold nuggets were dug out of the ground.
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