|'Director Ivan Sen peppers his stark landscape with sunsets and sunrises, doing everything he can to vary the palette.'|
Whilst watching Mystery Road I kept on thinking: 'this feels like a festival film I've seen. Naturalistic performances, looking, at least in part, at indigenous communities.' What luck then to discover that that film was Toomelah and that Mystery Road is director Ivan Sen's follow-up to the aforementioned. Even more luck: Mystery Road is a real step forwards for the director, building on some of the successes of his previous film and weaving his concerns into a satisfying, if slightly over-long, genre narrative.
It also looks fantastic. Shot in and around Winton, Queensland, Sen peppers his stark landscape with sunsets and sunrises, doing everything he can to vary the palette. The noticeably drab interiors contrast purposefully with the sense of freedom the outdoor shots create, mirroring perfectly the sense you get from protagonist Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), much more at home investigating the crime than at an awkward farewell dinner for a colleague.
The narrative sees Swan returning to his local town from a big city detective appointment that doesn't seem to have gone well. His presence is greeted with a level of dissatisfaction by the locals and his fellow cops, most of whom divide from Jay because of his race. Meanwhile, his own indigenous community isn't sure whether to trust him as 'one of them' of distrust him as a 'coppa', as he investigates the case of a murdered indigenous girl.
The mystery itself is told fairly well, with a growing sense of dread that there's something rotten lurking around Swan's town. All signs point to Hugo Weaving, who turns in an outstanding performance as a cop on some level of substance abuse who seems to be stalking Swan in broad daylight outback. Listen carefully and you can hear Johnno (Weaving) start sentences and then stop them, repeat a segment and rattle on again. It's a real lesson in depicting a slightly uncomfortable character.
Sen's real interest you feel though, especially after Toomelah, is with the communities his mystery moves around. There's a brief examination of the fear of the new they seem to exhibit (look for several moments involving mobile phones) and simultaneously a look at what the past has become. Jay is helped by an Old Boy (Jack Charles) who is simultaneously deus ex machina, village tell tale and chronic gambler (interestingly he's losing his money to local children). There's a look here at how we hand things on, and it's no surprise that Jay's family begins to feature heavily in the final third. It's not revelatory, but it is promising and Sen is showing signs of being a film-maker of note.