Mystery Road - Movie Review

With its world premiere on opening night of the Sydney Film Festival, the spotlight burned bright upon Mystery Road and its auteur Ivan Sen. The one man filmmaking machine wrote, directed, shot, produced, edited and scored this outback crime saga, crafting a sober slow burn punctuated by vignettes from a superb supporting cast.

Leading the charge is Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan, the detective who sets about investigating the murder of a young Aboriginal girl. Looking a little more cowboy than coppa, Jay has just returned from the big smoke and as his Holden makes the dusty rounds of this rural community, it’s clear no welcome wagon is set to follow. Instead Jay comes up against an ineffectual Sergeant (Tony Barry) and an affably antagonistic drug cop (Hugo Weaving); both of whom seem keen to let sleeping dogs lie.

Pedersen is commanding on screen as the committed detective with the unenviable task of questioning his own. Taciturn and thoughtful in turn, he traverses Mystery Road with impressive skill – indeed he is in practically every shot. But while the lone gun is certainly a Western convention, there’s a reason most cop films come in the ‘buddy’ variety. With no partner to banter with, or no baddie to cut away to – No Country for Old Men style – the film drags. Sen instead chooses to dot his landscape with with a series of intriguing cameos from the likes of Ryan Kwanten, Jack Thompson, Tasma Walton, David Field, Roy Billing, Damian Walshe-Howling, and the wild haired Jack Charles.

Rather than unfolding in a series of twists and turns, this story spirals down, with each revelation striking a little closer to home for Jay. But the effect is almost squandered again by the film’s spluttering pace. On the one hand Sen is an expansive filmmaker who enjoys creating a sense of durée. This was true of his beautiful debut, Beneath Clouds, where we follow two teens on the road, as well as his recent Toomelah, where the audience is embedded with a remote indigenous community. The weight of time is felt here – partially to palpably disquieting effect – but on the other hand it threatens to sap the film of mystery.

The ever-entertaining Weaving picks up the pace with his supporting role. Rocking the double denim as hard as he does his scenes as Jay’s suspicious fellow cop, the amount of malevolence and amiable menace that man can weave (sorry) into a scene is impressive. Constantly referring to ‘Jay Boy’, with its patronising and faintly racist overtones, Weaving is bottled lightening, and the perfect foil to Pedersen’s on screen stoicism.

Two other standout performances come from Kwanten and Field, as both bring a more odiously explicit racism to the surface with fabulously laidback fiendishness. Less successfully explicit, however, are some of Sen’s naming decisions: Mystery Road is one thing, but Massacre Creek and Slaughter Hill are so on the nose they almost ruin the film’s stunning locations.

At 111 minutes, the climactic shootout feels too far down the road, although it proves a fascinating (and picturesque) destination. And ultimately, despite sharing similar ground with the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, or even the successful Danish series The Killing, Mystery Road is significantly more understated expedition. But should it have been? It seems Iven Sen is in need of an editor. His vision and work ethic are astounding, and absolutely worthy of celebrating on the big screen. But one can only wonder how much more mysterious the film might have been with another set of eyes in the editing suite.

Mystery Road is out 15 August 2013


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