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A young Aboriginal girl is found dumped in a drain beneath an Outback highway, her throat slit, wild dogs circling, and so begins the ruminative creep along Mystery Road, the slow-burn whodunit from Australian auteur Ivan Sen that just kicked off the Sydney Film Festival. Blending genre conventions with subtle commentary on race relations in a colonized landscape, the writer-director-cinematographer-editor follows up the striking realist features Beneath Clouds and Toomelah by corralling a top Australian cast and crafting his most commercial film yet. A strong art house showing seems assured when Sen and his producer David Jowsey distribute the low-budget hybrid Western/murder-mystery domestically through their own Dark Matter film company on Aug. 15. Arclight has licensed U.S. rights to Well Go USA for a 2014 release.
Mystery Road’s racial undercurrents blur the lines of simple white-hat/black-hat Western conventions, but Sen has quite clearly stamped his central character as the lone-wolf hero of the piece with a spotless white Stetson. The charismatic Aaron Pedersen, stepping out of his television drama wheelhouse, is in practically every scene as Detective Jay Swan, an Aboriginal cop returning to his tiny hometown in remote and dusty Queensland after a stint in the big city. Assigned to the murder case, Jay chases down leads through the town and treeless surrounds, navigating the hurdles thrown up by the predominantly white police establishment and the mistrust of his own indigenous community. “We kill coppers bro,” a young Aboriginal boy tells him.
Pedersen is superb as the square-jawed protagonist, stoic in the face of blatant disinterest from his sergeant (Tony Barry) and the thinly veiled animosity of Hugo Weaving’s menacing fellow cop. His inquiries soon lead him to his estranged teenage daughter, who lives with his ex-wife Mary (Tasma Walton) and was friends with the dead girl, and he begins to tease apart a small-town web of drugs, prostitution and further murders.
The plot doesn’t so much thicken as expand to fill the wide-open landscapes shot with the spare framing and stillness of style that Sen has trademarked. Aerial shots of Jay criss-crossing the town along stringy dirt roads rope in a wide assortment of peripheral characters, giving juicy cameos to Jack Thompson as a melancholic loner, Damian Walshe-Howling as a petty criminal, Bruce Spence as the town coroner, the snowy-haired Jack Charles as the sly, all-seeing Old Boy and David Field and True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten as a casually racist father and son.
Strong characterization and Sen’s distinctive visual style trump plot, which advances at a crawl and occasionally stumbles over a surfeit of fringe characters and too-obvious MacGuffins. The journey is overlong (the multi-talented Sen should have outsourced the editing) but entertaining, helped along by the slowly swinging pendulum of a reverb-heavy soundtrack and a dose of laconic humor. A cracking shootout finale on Slaughter Hill shows Sen as much in command of action scenes as atmospherics.
Opens: Australia, August 15
Production company: Mystery Road Films
Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Jack Thompson, Tasma Walton
Writer-director: Ivan Sen
Producer: David Jowsey
Director of photography: Ivan Sen
Production designer: Matt Putland
Costume designer: Vanessa Loh
Editor: Ivan Sen
Sales: Arclight Films
No rating, 121 minutes
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