Ivan Sen’s new film Mystery Road is set somewhere in the unlovely, unromantic outback, where the car numberplates have no identifying state initials – this is the lost Australia of neglect, disadvantage and wasteful lethargy.
Son of a stockman, detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returns to his unnamed hometown, where the body of an Indigenous teenage girl has been found out where the big rigs rumble through the desert – her throat slit.
The sergeant at the local police station (Tony Barry) is apathetic, prepared to take only the most rudimentary investigative measures. But a story that might follow the familiar lines established by In The Heat Of The Night[ (1967) veers away from the classic (and now standard) Poitier versus Steiger racial dichotomy and instead takes us with Jay as he navigates a divided cultural landscape as an unwelcome outsider.
To his dismay, he discovers that his own daughter, Crystal, living with Jay’s ex (Tasma Walton), was a close friend of the murdered girl and that she, in all likelihood, was moving in the same shadowy, drug-numbed world.
Other coppers are most likely bent, with Hugo Weaving’s shady detective running his own race. The Baileys (David Field and Ryan Kwanten) own the big cattle station and are hostile redneck roo-shooters.
Sen films it without any affectation – but for some beautiful aerial shots, the camera is stationary at all times, getting in tight for numerous character close-ups, and is never hand held, while music is kept to a bare minimum, allowing the soundscape to contribute enormously to the atmospherics (as it should more often).
Performances are excellent – Pedersen is especially good as a man becoming exposed to unpalatable truths.
Perhaps in keeping with the title, the script is only partially failed by a lack of cohesion – or binding glue – that results in its many disparate components never quite falling into one piece.
Ultimately, there is some crucial information not imparted, because probably of an imprecise edit – Sen might have been advised to not attempt absolutely everything himself.
~ John Campbell