“In Mystery Road what does one potentially lose if either truth comes to the surface, or the underdogs are allowed to rise too far above their station in this town, in this life?”
running time: 118 min
writer / director: Ivan Sen
select cast: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Tony Barry, Tasma Walton
review: written by Adam Roberts, edited by Greg Punch
Review (text version)
A remote road leading to a remote town; a murder; multiple suspects; an almost dismissive handling of the events by local law men; one man alone pushing the boundaries of truth… and a lot of dust. It’s a western, right? Yeah it is, but it’s set in present day outback Queensland, the main protagonist is an indigenous detective and the audience is in for a tension filled two hour ride of twists, turns and dead ends – got your attention? This is Mystery Road.
Written and Directed by Ivan Sen, Mystery Road drip feeds a well crafted blend of stylish visuals, intrigue, insight and tension.
It’s all set against a background of two cultures attempting to co exist in a distorted vision of a “civilised” place at a forgotten end of the world.
To be applauded is the film’s willingness NOT to shy away from some ugly situations and also not spotlight them as in an “issue” movie for some sort of moral shock or shame value. There’s drug use and abuse, sex between semi complicit teenage girls and older men passing through the town, but there’s no judgement, no morality lectures, just a presentation of the reality where different inhabitants of this town use different means to get ahead, to fall by the wayside or to numb themselves from the “just too painful” too aspects of what’s around them.
Aaron Pedersen plays Detective Jay Swan sporting a Stetson and Winchester he might be Gary Cooper of John Wayne except for the separation of half the globe and 130 years or so. Sound like a cliche that might fall flat? It does not. It works very, very well.
Swan is a thinking man, wrought with trouble – his own broken family, his connection (or lack-there-of) with both the indigenous and non indigenous inhabitants of the town and the blurred lines of right and wrong within the police force he is supposedly working with. I’m hard pushed to recall a character in an Aussie film as complex as Swan – a man with a foot in two cultures, not quite belonging to either, and the very people he is trying to help, often unwilling to accept him – pretty much no one is on HIS side. Pedersen does a top job with a performance that’s understated and intimate but we totally get what he’s going through.
A great example of this is a scene with with his daughter played by Tricia Whitton. She is one of a number of girls in the film, who don’t seem to be acting at all, and who have some tenuous links to the murder victim. Ivan Sen has so realistically captured the nonchalant attitude of teenage girls, transfixed with conversations via text message but almost incapable of conversation with another person in the here and now.
The girls have secrets-a-plenty and the pain of the father, unable to break their code of silence, is intensely intimate and painful to watch. In fact the brick walls of communication that Jay Swan faces in his journey would cause most men to just give up, but through a circuitous dance of investigations, little by little, we see flecks of insight appearing. It’s great to see this isn’t laid out for us like some Black Fella White Fella version of a Miss Marple in the Outback type who-dunnit – not here. In this town what does one potentially lose if either truth comes to the surface, or the underdogs are allowed to rise too far above their station in this town, in this life?
The ones who are out in the cold, fending for themselves, well, we get that loud and clear, so who’s really top mongrel in this pack then? That’s the real question and the real mystery.
One conundrum filled character, seemingly right in the middle of the pack, is Johnno, played by a distinctly unplugged Hugo Weaving. He’s an actor I find four times out of five seems to be doing a really good job of collecting the pay check with minimal effort, and then once in a while does a triple back flip and shows what he’s really capable of delivering. ‘Little Fish’ comes to mind, where he played the “career over” sportsman and here again playing a sly cop so deep in the grey area between friend and foe neither the audience nor Jay know what he is really up to. A scene in the Chinese restaurant over lunch is a brilliant tease and a tour de force for Weaving.
Jay’s ex wife, Mary, played by Tasma Walton, provides an insight into other facets of Jay’s complex life and back story. She does a great job in the role and it’s a pity she doesn’t have more screen time… I kinda find the more intimate side of Jay’s life, little that we do discover, to be more interesting than all the boy’s with their guns – now I’m not saying emasculate the script and turn it into a Chick Flick but given all the women in this film are doped up to the eyeballs, angry as all get out or incapable of communication, Mary’s presence is perhaps an under utilised platform for reflection.
You’ll spot a lot of familiar faces in the ensemble of support roles as well – Ryan Kwanten, David Field, Jack Charles, Tony Barry – love what he does with that ice cream – Damian Walshe-Howling and in a very odd cameo, Jack Thompson. In fact I had to watch the film a second time to get what the scene with Jack was really all about and why it was given so much screen time to ultimately communicate a very small piece of information. Likewise a scene with a flirtatious Motel manager delightfully played by Zoe Carrides.
This leads to one criticism of the film – are there just a few too many threads and too many red herrings overall? I’m not questioning the crafting of individual scenes – Sen and his actors seem to know just when that moment of anticipation in a set-up needs to be held and when the reaction or revelation needs to be placed – but getting the overall rhythm of the film to work, as scenes come together and build to create the whole, is a delicate dance that’s never easy and few can ever master completely — and when they do what do we say? “Oh, that’s a bit formulaic and predictable.”
So film makers can never win and, I sound like I’m contradicting myself when I say individual scenes are gems but are there, overall, just too many of them? Or too many of them packed with a few too many little nuances? Sometimes just getting out of the car and putting on your hat doesn’t have to be a three act play.
Sen is credited as writer, director AND editor – Now, directors can get close to their baby and sometimes it is hard to let things go that seem really, really important at the time of writing and shooting but in the greater scheme of things they can clutter the story telling with information that’s ultimately only semi relevant.
Usually if details are clouding the flow they will get trimmed and simplified at the edit stage when a new pair of hands and eyes usually comes into the process. In this case, with one person handling it all the way, can there be too much of a good thing that ultimately weighs down the impact of the film as a whole? There’s a debate for any editors and directors out there to have.
And here is an Easter Egg for anyone reading this far – notice which people are eating and drinking when Jay first raises any real “issues” with them. There seems to be a clue that you can spot the bad guy (and it’s not by the colour of his hat) but what he has in his mouth.
The wide scope aspect ratio is really well used – often compartmentalised by divisions within the frame making interiors feel all the more claustrophobic and the exteriors all the more expansive. Shot around Winton and Ipswich in Queensland, the film captures the flat ordinariness of a shabby and dusty town. It’s like a scab on the face of the landscape under a harsh and unforgiving sun, then contrasts this with superb film-noir-esc scenes shot at dusk and dawn.
Ten out of ten for the way the breathing space is handled – here is where Sen proves his skill as a story teller – the moments of silence are just as important as moments of action or words. Two scenes in particular echo Hitchcock’s knack for allowing the lead character, and audience, to just watch an event unfold, discovering new and vital information. This isn’t about, “how fast can I get the information to the audience” but instead, “I’m gonna show you this in real time, just as the character would see it, and entirely without dialogue.”
As the audience we are forced to pay attention, to take in and interpret what we’re shown, moment by moment.
So, are you ready for a trip down Mystery Road?
original review © Adam Roberts 2015
edited / adapted version by Greg Punch
Reference Blu-ray copy of film used for this review:
Australia Paramount Home Entertainment (Australasia)
2014 (year of BluRay release)
© 2013 Transmission Films
Photos of Ivan Sen
© Jacky Ghossein
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