Mystery Road Movie Review
This tightly wound drama evokes a strikingly inventive sense of the Wild West in the Australian Outback. Since filmmaker Ivan Sen refuses to crank up even a hint of suspense, he cleverly subverts the usual cliches, refusing to indulge in action-movie exaggeration. But this leaves the film feeling very sleepy, depending on audiences to connect with the central character's internal voyage rather than anything that happens on-screen.
The focus is on Jay (Aaron Pederson), a beefy police detective who moves back home to rural Queensland after several years as a cop in the big city. He's a local boy in this dusty Outback town, but now he's also considered an outsider. His first case involves the murder of a young Aboriginal girl who seems to have been part of a drugs and prostitution ring. This sparks an extra level of concern for Jay because his estranged teen daughter knew the victim. And as Jay digs into the case, he begins to understand that there's a dark criminal element woven right into the fabric of the community. It's so endemic that the last policeman who tried to investigate it turned up dead.
This is an exploration of the dark layers of bigotry and evil that worm their way into any group of people, often far beneath the seemingly peaceful surface. Intriguingly, the film isn't actually about the murder; it's about Jay's journey to discover his own personal history, how his past connects with a present he can barely bring himself to imagine. Pederson is a magnetic presence at the centre of the story as a man dealing with rather a lot of abuse while trying to help solve a nasty situation and understand his own place in this world. Around him the supporting cast add colour to each scene, with notable contributions from the superb Hugo Weaving, Aussie veteran Jack Thompson and True Blood's Ryan Kwanten.
This is clearly a labour of love for writer-director Sen, who also photographed it, edited it and composed the score. He has created an authentically gritty, setting in this stale town, which in addition to Mystery Road has places called Massacre Creek and Slaughter Hill, each of which plays a role in the story. And while there's a bit of explosive action, including some startlingly edgy gunfights, the film exists more tellingly in each frustrated conversation and suspicious glare. So by the end, it's hard not to hope that Jay will come to his senses and get out of town. Because we don't want to be here for another minute.