For years now Aboriginal actor Aaron Pedersen has been a charismatic presence on Australian TV shows like Water Rats, the recent Jack Irish adaptations, and a personal favourite of mine The Secret Life of Us. In Ivan Sen’s thriller Mystery Road. Pedersen finally gets a leading role as a police detective returning home from the city to the dead-end outback town he left a decade earlier. Why Jay Snow (Pedersen) came back is anybody’s guess. Snow’s fellow officers patronise him and his own folk hate him for turning cop. There’s an ex-wife Mary (Tasma Walton) but she’s drinking her life away and angry at Snow for ignoring their daughter.
As with Jindabyne (2006, Ray Lawrence) the murder of a young Aboriginal woman causes conflict in a small town. While in Lawrence’s relocation of a Raymond Carver short story the killing causes much soul searching amongst the townsfolk here nobody seems to care. Found near the highway with her throat slashed the teenager was a drug addict who prostituted herself to passing truck drivers.
Snow is given no resources to investigate the murder even though there’s a long list of suspects including a kangaroo hunting sharpshooter (Ryan Kwanten), a drug pusher (Damian Walshe-Howling) preying on the Aboriginal community, and maybe even Snow’s enigmatic colleague Jonno (Hugo Weaving) who has a habit of turning up at inopportune moments. Weaving is exceptional as a man whose threatening nature is only slightly softened by his avuncular manner and whose wardrobe seems to consist entirely of faded denim sleeveless shirts.
Racial tensions simmering under the surface of everyday life and the marginalisation of indigenous Australians are placed within the framework of the Western genre. Like the US show Justified it is interested in how poverty in small deprived communities often forces people towards crime or finding an escape though drink and drugs. It’s no grim affair either with Sen’s screenplay providing a dry sense of humour and Pedersen’s understated performance holds the attention. When the inevitable showdown arrives it’s one of the finest shoot-outs in recent memory. An intense fifteen-minute exchange which is chaotic, messy, and unusually for an onscreen gun battle everybody involved seems to fear for their lives.
Sen’s slow burn approach burns a little too slowly and there is too much heavy handed symbolism on show. Occasionally the reliance on lengthy conversations with suspects makes the film feel a little too much like a television police procedural. Despite these minor flaws Mystery Road is engrossing and should provide both writer/director Sen and Aaron Pedersen with international breakthroughs.
Written and directed by Ivan Sen