Mystery Road

directed by Ivan Sen

122mins, released on DVD and BluRay on 12 Feb

review by Michèle Asprey

(This is my review as published in the February 2014 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

In August 2013 the Australian thriller Mystery Road had a fairly brief run at the cinema. Like many Australian films, it was gone before most cinemagoers noticed it was on. But there is a second chance to see the film with its release this month on DVD.

Of course, home viewing is never as good as seeing a film on the big screen. And Mystery Road is one of those films that is best appreciated at the cinema. Like all of director Ivan Sen’s films, (including Beneath Clouds, 2002, and Toomelah, 2011), it is beautiful to watch. Sen is the film’s cinematographer, as well as its director, writer, editor, casting agent, sound designer and music composer. He even had a hand in the film’s distribution. It would be a shame to miss seeing all this talent, even on the small screen at home.

At first, Mystery Road appears to be a genre film, but in effect it is much more than that. It is similar to the magnificent Turkish film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2011): what  seems to be a regular police thriller turns into something much more profound. Mystery Road also flirts with the horror genre: there is a character in a white hockey mask and some other creepy aspects, including a persistent threat of wild dogs in the background. But ultimately the film is more ambitious than either of these genres.

Sen has assembled an impressive cast of Australian actors, including Aaron Pedersen as the protagonist, Jay Swan, an indigenous man who has been away in the city improving his police credentials. He returns to his home town in outback Queensland as a fully-fledged detective to take charge of a tricky murder case.

Tony Barry features as the boss copper who can’t spare any resources to help Jay solve this increasingly puzzling case. Hugo Weaving plays a drug squad cop who speaks in riddles and aphorisms. Jack Thompson turns up as an old codger who might be a witness. David Field is cast as a menacing local, who is concerned about the proliferation of wild dogs in the area. Ryan Kwanten (TV’s True Blood, 2008-2014) plays Field’s red-necked pig-shooting son. Damian Walshe-Howling (TV’s Underbelly, 2008) appears as a drug-dealing police informant. Roy Billing and Zoe Carides also have small roles. Tasma Walton is effective as Jay’s wife Mary, who has been driven to despair by largely unseen forces. Debutant Trisha Whitton gives an authentic performance as Jay’s teenage daughter Crystal, whose future may be at stake.

There is a resonance of David Lynch in Mystery Road: the details of the plot are less important than the stylish way the film is shot and the menacing undertone it creates. With a sense of pervasive evil, this film takes its time to reveal its intentions, so it is important to remain patient about the mystery in Mystery Road.

A shoot-out scene towards the end is somewhat incongruous yet satisfyingly cathartic. What follows seems anti-climactic yet, in a way, this is when the real story begins. The original murder takes place at Massacre Creek. This is a fictitious place but one that echoes the names of the many places where white people poisoned or shot scores of Aboriginal people—crimes that have largely gone unpunished. Moreover, Sen said the unsolved murders of three young Aboriginal women from his own extended family were part of the inspiration for the film.

And what of the wild dogs that can be heard throughout the film but never seen? In a question and answer session at the London Film Festival in 2013, Jack Thompson explained: “Who are the wild dogs? The wild dogs are us”.