The Indigenous detective in Mystery Road, played by Aaron Pedersen.

The Indigenous detective in Mystery Road, played by Aaron Pedersen.

I saw the new Australian movie Mystery Road on Monday night. I’ve been keen to see it for some time for a number of reasons:

1. It was shot mostly around Winton (click for my gallery) and I was out there just a few weeks ago (1400km from Brisbane) and I was keen to see what was purported to be excellent cinematography of a really beautiful part of the country.

2. There were some fantastic Australian actors in the movie – Hugo Weaving, Jack Thompson, Aaron Pedersen and Ryan Kwanten to name a few.

3. And most importantly for its commentary on racial tensions and the social malaise of rural communities.


I wasn’t disappointed. I was however equally horrified, amazed and appalled throughout the movie which moves slowly, almost laconically through each scene with good character development and building tension that explodes in this incredible gun fight at the end. But no spoilers I promise.

Mystery Road is the story of an Indigenous detective who returns to his community after some absence and begins an investigation into the death of a young aboriginal girl, found by a truck driver with her throat slit under a bridge by the side of the road. The detective, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), attempts to question people but is met with stony silence from within his own community–kids tell him “we shoot coppers bro”–and from without by indifferent coppers and racist farmers, one who tells Swan something like: “we shoot trespassers, particularly the dark kind”.

There’s a definitive western feeling to this film with cops in jeans, boots and hats with pistols slung around their waists. I wasn’t surprised to learn director Ivan Sven was inspired by No Country for Old Men. It depicts the outback and its society almost as a frontier land of another age, and indeed that’s not far from the truth at times, although there is much in this film that is far more realistic than some people might imagine.

The cinematography is impressive and there’s a lot of footage shot at dusk or dawn with that murky interplay between night and day that speaks of that “in between” ground that Swan finds himself in, sort of trapped between two worlds. He’s considered a sellout to some degree and asked how he can stomach putting his own people away. His ex-wife drinks and he suspects his daughter is involved with drugs, he also has to bribe Indigenous locals for information. Within the power structures of the town, eg. the police force, he’s not really taken seriously – the investigation isn’t supported with any man power and at one point the sergeant calls in detectives from out of town to take over.

But Swan is not to be deterred and in his white cowboy hat he comes across like a solitary lone ranger fighting racism, indifference, fear, hopelessness and his own demons. There’s a scene where he shoots bottles of beer from a distance – practice perhaps or symbolic of taking out his anger on the bottle? One of the most powerful scenes for me was when he suggests to his daughter he could get her a job in a shop selling dresses. She can’t see the merit in it and says something like, “What’s the point of doing that?” Swan either has no answer or can’t answer her.

The gun toting Indigenous detective Jay Swan in Mystery Road.

The gun toting Indigenous detective Jay Swan in Mystery Road.

There is also little to no music throughout the film which I liked. Music is emotive and powerful, but it’s absence means you feel for the emotion and meaning yourself rather than allow yourself to be influenced. In the silence you can reflect and take in the struggles playing out for what they are.

One of the unsung heroes of the film is the Australian outback. It’s raw, tough and horrific in it’s beauty and starkness. Ivan Sven could not have picked a better place to film. This is a film all Australians need to see but unfortunately it was only screened for one week at the Palace in Brisbane which is probably due to lack of audience numbers – disappointing in itself. It’s still on at Cineplex Hawthorne but obviously in last days. If you can’t catch it at the cinema I would recommend getting it on DVD. It’s 116 minutes and you should be prepared to be confronted.

I’ve given this a rating of 8 only because there’s a couple of unanswered questions in a film that largely ties off a lot of things quite well at the end.

Rating: 8/10

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