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
Is it me or is there some kind of subtle agenda hidden in Australian films these days? A warning for anybody contemplating moving to Australia to think again. Maybe Australia’s cities are overpopulated and this is their way of keeping the numbers down. There has always been an underlying violence in Australian cinema but they are really going for it now with works like Underbelly (TV), Animal Kingdom (David Michôd), and Snowtown (Justin Kurzel). Bloody hell Snowtown, try getting Snowtown out of your head once you’ve seen it. Now here’s director Jon Hewitt with another film about how dangerous Australians are. X: Night of Vengeance is a stylish thriller in which a high-class prostitute spends her last night as a working girl trying to stay alive after she witnesses a corrupt cop killing a drug dealer.
Holly (Viva Bianca) dreams of escaping to Parisbut has one more night to pull tricks before leaving Sydney forever. Holly’s last gig is a threesome with drug dealer Willie (Hazem Shammas), but her colleague finds herself indisposed. So Holly quickly replaces her partner with 17-year old runaway Shay (Hannah Mangan-Lawrence). Shay has only recently arrived in Sydney and is hopelessly out of her depth. Their evening goes well enough until Bennett (Stephen Philips) arrives and shoots their client in the head three times. Holly and Shay escape but find themselves hunted by Bennett throughout the Cross, a neon-lit area filled with sex clubs viewers of Underbelly: The Golden Mile will recognise but for the uninitiated feels like Soho twinned with Hell.
Ignore the clumsy title, X: Night of Vengeances is a slick genre movie with a compelling performance from Spartacus beauty Viva Bianca. Now that’s a fabulous name, Viva Bianca. Do not mistake this for a serious film about the sex industry. This is an urban fairytale with Shay as the girl who wanders from the path into the forest where the monsters live. It is a place filled with broken dreams. Everybody Shay meets is looking for a way out, hustling for money, prostituting themselves, or using other people for their own gain. Even the kindly young taxi driver (Eamon Farren) who forms a bond with Shay, and is noticeable for being the only sympathetic male character in the film, is working the night shift so he can earn enough money to fulfill his own dreams of escape.
Filmed on location in Sydneydirector of photography Mark Pugh makes great use of colour and there’s a tawdry cheap and nasty feel that recalls Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (1984). The screenplay by Hewitt and Belinda McClory is occasionally portentous and relies too much on coincidence but Hewitt keeps the action moving and with a length of 85 minutes X: Night of Vengeance never outstays its welcome.
There are only a couple of hundred residents in Snowtown and not much in the way of local amenities. The local bank shut down in the late 90’s and an outsider from Adelaide rented the premises. John Bunting stored barrels containing the dismembered bodies of eight people in the bank’s vault. They were filled with acid which presumably Bunting thought would dissolve the remains. Instead he was inadvertently preserving them by using the slower acting hydrochloric acid. The police were suspicious when Bunting’s associate Robert Joe Wagner was linked to three missing persons-reports and began investigating the duo. This led to them the bank where they found the barrels along with their killing tools. These crimes were nothing to do with the townsfolk of Snowtown, but now Bunting’s handiwork carries their name.
As does Justin Kurzel’s movie Snowtown which is one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen. It is an endurance test, particularly during a prolonged strangulation which is horrifying in its intimacy. Yet Snowtown is undoubtedly a moral work, never glamorising Bunting (Daniel Henshall), but instead showing how this amiable soft spoken outsider was able to manipulate a teenager into becoming his accomplice. We see everything through the eyes of Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) as he learns his matey new father figure is in fact a ruthless killer targeting homosexuals or those he suspects of being paedophiles. There are no characters offered to the audience to provide some kind of respite from this horror, no scenes of policemen putting together a case, or any sense of moral order . We’re trapped watching Jamie slide into the abyss.
Jamie might be 16 but he’s already worn down, a rape victim, easily led. Had somebody else gotten to him first they might have been able to point him in the right direction but he’s easy pickings for a manipulator like Bunting. The lives we are shown in this grim sunless suburb of Adelaide seem empty and hopeless. Save for a scene where there is a dance in a local pub and director Justin Kurzel uses slow motion for a moment making the scene strangely poignant. This is the only moment of compassion on show in Snowtown.
Maybe the film is more bearable for it. Kurzel and screenwriter Shaun Grant imply these murders were emblematic of a disenfranchised underclass feeding on each other. They have no interest in making us care about these characters. The deaths of Clinton Trezise and Michael Gardiner don’t fit into this pattern. They are not in the movie either as both men were murdered before Bunting met Jamie. The details are heartbreaking though. Trezise had slight learning difficulties but was apparently happy and excited to be living on his own for the first time. Gardiner was only 19-years old, openly gay, and liked to dress flamboyantly. They were missed. Not by many it seems, but they were missed.