In the shrouded dusk of a rural Australian sunset a Trucker pulls up, check his tires, and stumbles onto an Aboriginal girl’s corpse. She’s been murdered, her throat sliced open with a hunter’s knife. Her murder, and the location of her body, washing up at “Massacre Creek”, informs the rest of Ivan Sen’s new film Mystery Road.
Jay Swann, played by Aaron Pedersen, is the new Aboriginal detective put on the case. He’s from the local community and knows the girl. His fellow officers seem of little help, the White community is suffering from a collective amnesia, and the local Aboriginals don’t trust a cop, no matter his skin colour or heritage. With few options available Jay is forced to chase down every available lead. A dodgy cop, played by a very creepy Hugo Weaving, is a suspect, as is a local Kangaroo hunter with bikie connections, portrayed by Ryan Kwanteen. There’s also the unresolved matter of a young local cop murdered last year who failed to pay attention to the local powers that be. Jay is left with few friends and lingering guilt over his treatment of his ex-wife and daughter, who live in the town, and have some connection to the murder.
Some of the dialogue in the film is atrocious, with a conversation about washing away the town’s ‘dirt’ resembling less a Western and more a somber laundry ad. The narrative, too, becomes directionless, and lacks the tense coil of expectation and violence that defines high-quality procedurals. The climax of the film is well shot, with the audience right in the box seat of Jay’s terror, and of his eventual catharsis. Sen’s visual style, however, while distinctive, too often reverts to the polished cinematography that is encouraged at Australia’s premier film school AFTRS.
The hero archetypes of Westerns are often either the Good Man Who’s Had Enough, or the Bad Man Turning Good, both of whom use their special tools in violence to protect those who are unwilling or unable to defend themselves. They are, in other words, our modern day saints. Like the Archangel Michael, the heroes of Westerns are the ones delivering righteous and horrifying brutality. Jay’s an avenging spirit, laying waste to the sinners, exploiters, drug dealers, and rapists that prey on Aboriginal communities. He’s the prodigal son that’s returned from the city to begin his bloody work of retributive violence. He is, the film suggests, finally standing up for his community.
The distinctive rural movies that have come to define Australian cinema – George Miller’s Mad Max, Stephan Elliot’s Priscilla, Kriv Stender’s Red Dog, Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout, and Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright – have found another match in Mystery Road. The veiled light that opens the film also ends it, leaving an uncertain Jay silhouetted against his country. His town remains an enigmatic and conflicted one, but as long as Jay’s around it’s one that will be fiercely protected from the usual crooks.