"How do you sleep at night - locking up your own people all the time?"
Despite Australia enjoying a healthy film industry, there doesn't seem to be enough films made (or being successfully-distributed overseas at least) by or for the indigenous Australian people - a people who feel that their rights to citizenship, to be recognised in the population census and to be given the vote did not occur until 1967 and whose affairs, in several states, were until then handled under departments with remits for flora and fauna (and thus, it is argued, equating them to vegetables or plants of the land rather than people) - so it's encouraging to find a film like Mystery Road from indigenous filmmaker Ivan Sen that attempts to change that, and even more encouraging to hear that a sequel - Goldstone - was made this year.
Set in outback Queensland with locations boasting such richly atmospheric names as the eponymous Mystery Road, Massacre Creek, Slaughter Hill and the Dusk Til Dawn Motel, this measured modern-day Western is actually little more than a shaggy dog story of a thriller centering around the violent death of a young indigenous girl and a mystery involving wild dogs roaming the dusty, barren landscape. Writer/director Sen's real interest lay in the evocative depiction of society through the springboard that is afforded by the central crime, and its a society that is as desiccated and in need of attention and repair as the rusted abandoned jalopies and the failing fences that line the scorched long stretches of roads.
Aaron Pedersen stars as detective Jay Swan, 'an Abbo copper' caught between two worlds and viewed with suspicion by everyone, from his colleagues on the force to his own, estranged family. With a seemingly unmoved police department, it falls to Swan to investigate the murder of a teenage aboriginal girl, discovered by the roadside, and his investigations led him close to home when he finds a link between the dead girl and his teenage daughter, Crystal. Delving further, this lone wolf soon uncovers a web of drug-dealing and exploitation that has ensnared almost everyone in the community, maybe even his colleagues such as Hugo Weaving's subtly menacing and enigmatic Johnno. Weaving is perhaps the film's biggest name, but the real star here is Pederson whose natural quiet charisma lights up the screen, making it almost impossible to take your eyes off him, his permanently knitted brow and thousand yard stare - and rightly so. I am so glad to see his character get his own series as he certainly has what it takes to carry it.
It's a beautifully shot film, imbued with the tropes of Westerns such as stetsons and Winchester rifles against such remarkable desert scenery, along with some impressive aerial photography that capture the isolation and barely civilised nature of the arid outback. The finale may explode into unexpected (and I suspect somewhat tongue-in-cheek) gunplay but its the long and winding paths it took to get to this denouement that count and are what you'll remember for long after.