Mystery Road has the potential to be the most brightly lit noir we’ve ever seen.
Set in rural Queensland, Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), a detective of Australian Aboriginal descent, is called up to investigate the murder of young girl. As Swan submerges himself into the investigation, he finds suspects in the townsfolk, the local police force and even his own family.
Mystery Road is a mutli-layered film. As well as the investigation, Swan experiences a community’s apathy towards a dead black girl and its begrudging acceptance of someone of colour having some sort of wealth and authority. There are problems closer to home as Swan struggles to rekindle the relationship with his daughter. There’s also the matter of Swan’s colleague Johnno, played by a highly strung Hugo Weaving, who has a tenacity to piss on Swan’s fire seemingly every chance he gets. All of this simmers together nicely and produces a thoroughly engaging narrative.
Taking on the duties of writer, producer, cinematography, editing and music, it’s a wonder Ivan Sen had time to actually direct Mystery Road, but by Christ he does. This is the kind of backdrop pornography most travel commercials can only dream of. The bold, all-encompassing outback contrasting rather nicely with the intimacy of the performances on display.
Not everything will get resolved in Mystery Road, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the characters’ interaction comes before the mystery. This is all pretty easy to accept in some cases. We never get a full history of everyone Swan meets, but we’re not supposed to. We’re tagging along in his reality. And just like life, no one ever talks in exposition. The brief snatches of conversation are all we’re given to build pictures and it’s all we’re ever going to get.
Sen seems to deliberately drop things into the mix that have no place in the film except to confuse. Maybe Sen was just a little too close to the movie whilst making it, allowing him to see the cohesion that others can’t. Throughout the film there are whispers of wild dogs, who are rarely seen but seemingly seem to serve the purpose of being a clue. Sen also seems to frame a lot of conversations around really audible eating. Really audible. Slurp, smack, slurp, exposition, slurp, smack, burp. It can be distracting and seems to serve no purpose.
Annoying as they may be, and they really are, Mystery Road is still an astonishingly good piece of work. Flitting from noir to western to police procedural, this film deserves more recognition outside of Australia.