Mystery Road (2013)

Mystery Road

An Aborigine detective returns to the Australian outback town where he grew up and investigates the murder of a young Aborigine girl despite his white police colleagues’ prejudice and indifference.

Mystery Road

Walkabout by Alexa Dalby

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In an infinitely wide and flat Australian landscape, a road train stops in the dark of night at a deserted layby signposted Massacre Creek – a striking opening image. Its driver gets out and discovers the body of an Aborigine girl with her throat slit, hidden in a culvert. The idea of a moody murder mystery set in Australia’s outback is intriguing. Perhaps even more so because it is written and directed by a film maker of Aborigine origin, Ivan Sen, the award-winning director of acclaimed feature films such as Beneath Clouds and Toomelah. Its central character, too, is Aborigine – detective Jay Swan, played by television and film actor Aaron Pedersen – and it also stars some of Australia’s best, Hugo Weaving as Johnno, a detective with suspicious alliances, and Jack Thompson as a racist landowner.

Now one of the local police, though dressed like a Western gunslinger with jeans, boots, stetson and gunbelt, Swan returns to his small hometown in the outback to find himself in the middle of the two communities, not fitting into either. He’s subjected to crude institutional racism by his white colleagues and seen by the Aborigine community as no longer one of them because of his career choice to become part of the establishment. “I’ve always been in the middle,” he says, as the film reveals the big divide between white and Aborigine communities. The white police don’t take the murder of an Aborigine girl seriously, so in the face of their hostility – and even threats, Swan sets out on a one-man crusade to bring the murderer or murderers to justice – along the way uncovering an uncomfortable trail of police corruption, prostitution, more murders and exploitation of the Aborigine community.

In fact, this is the film’s true subject. The premise of the plot, the expendable lives of Aborigine girls, is deeply felt and pervades the movie – based on experiences within the director’s own family – but the story line has holes, gaps and coincidences. There are a few too many shots of cars overrevving and speeding along straight dusty roads, and police station filing cabinets being energetically opened and slammed shut. What the director more centrally wants to show – and does – is how the Aborigine community lives, the poverty of their neighbourhoods – the barren grids of their housing estates, always shown in aerial shots – the casual harassment of their youth by white police, the destruction of their indigenous culture and the debased wreckage of their lives because of alcohol and drugs.

Swan’s own private life too seems in freefall. He’s estranged from his dishevelled wife (Tasma Walton), who is permanently drunk and living with a violent partner, and daughter, Crystal (Tricia Whitton), who knew the murdered girls and may have been involved with them. Exuberantly white-haired and bearded traditional community elder (Jack Charles) is scared. Swan’s enquiries lead to an extended gun battle out of town along the aptly named Mystery Road on the dramatic bluffs of a big landscape, where Swan sharpshoots back at his executioners like an avenging angel. But whilst he is the moral heart of the film, you’re left wondering about the possibility of change in future, in a society where those at the top he accuses of wanting to keep everything in its place.

Huge skies, low horizons, glowing orange sunsets and a depiction of a culture and environment we rarely see in genre mystery movies make Mystery Road an unusual and thought-provoking film.

Mystery Road is released on 29th August 2014 in the UK

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