Beneath Clouds (2002) writer-director Ivan Sen has found a pitch-perfect niche in the crime-thriller genre with his new film Mystery Road, set in the Australian outback. This marvellously atmospheric and sumptuous-looking film has all the mellow attitude of a western, pausing to take in panoramic, burnt-orange sunrises and sunsets, while punctuated by bursts of action sequences straight out of a cowboy shootout, following mounting tension.
Mystery Road and Sen can also be credited for introducing the awe-inspiring Australian TV actor Aaron Pedersen to the international audience’s attention. Pedersen exudes an all-engrossing, controlled and authoritative presence on the big screen, not seen since the cowboy heydays of Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen or Burt Lancaster. Of Australian Aboriginal descent, Pedersen makes for a likely hero in Sen’s racially tense storylines, trying here to transcend local barriers as Aboriginal cop Jay Swan.
After the murder of a local Aboriginal girl, dumped by the roadside, Detective Swan is given the case on returning to his deprived hometown, following a lengthy absence. Keen to prove his skills honed in the city and solve the crime that throws up leads far too close to home, Swan encounters the ugly stranglehold of drugs and prostitution in his township, as well as strong racial tension that plays havoc with him doing the job. In addition, Swan experiences prejudice in the workplace, including locking horns with a narcotics cop (Hugo Weaving, untitled) who seems to be one of the main culprits running the show.
The film’s slow-burn pace brilliantly mirrors then reflects the building frustrations of its protagonist in trying to get leads, a tedious process but one that does not deter Swan. Hence, there are some exciting dynamics at play because of Swan’s exclusion from his own community – who don’t fully trust him, especially after his absence – and the White folk who dominate the local landscape and surrounding farms. The film speaks volumes about the plight of Aborigine deprivation and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. The irony is the younger community are technology-savvy with smartphones featuring heavily as a tool of communication (and a stark contrast to the apparent domestic hardship) and a digital barrier to Swan’s tracking of clues and missing people.
Pedersen as Swan portrays a man of principle, never giving up on the goal and trying to get others to take a long, hard look at themselves, including the mother of his child. Even so, Sen suggests Swan is still a flawed character with dark secrets that are touched on but not explored to veer proceedings off course. That said the White characters are painted fairly two-dimensionally as rogues and cheats. There is a commendable turn from True Blood actor, Australian Ryan Kwanten as a misguided local bad boy who fits the Australian redneck mould perfectly. Admittedly, the clichés are perhaps more unavoidable in such a crime genre that comments on social ills than the leeway Sen had with his characters’ journey in Beneath Clouds.
Mystery Road offers nothing new in terms of crime plot, but its awesome setting and tenacious hero make it an absolute must-see, especially for western fans. It’s also a chance to marvel at Sen’s superior filmmaking talent that included shooting, editing and scoring, and to be introduced to Pedersen who is set for global screen domination after this.