'Goldstone': Sydney Review

A striking, not entirely satisfying outback western.

A strung-out cop tracks down a lead in a tiny outback town in Australian director Ivan Sen's follow-up to his 2013 feature "Mystery Road."

Ivan Sen’s 2013 feature Mystery Road introduced Jay Swan, an aboriginal detective investigating the murder of an aboriginal girl found with her throat slit on the side of a highway. Returning to his hometown after a stint in the city, Swan was side-eyed by the locals and patronized by his white colleagues, but still managed to clean house. The director returns to that time-honored set-up in Goldstone, opening this year’s Sydney Film Festival, though his hero is barely recognizable.

Swan is again played by Aaron Pedersen, a warhorse of countless local television series, probably best known for out-swaggering Guy Pearce in the Jack Irish series. The striking thing about Mystery Road was that, despite his Stetson, its leading man didn’t swagger at all. Swan was uncertain and conflicted, inflamed by his guilt that the hellhole he was sent to disinfect was the one in which he’d left his wife and teenage daughter to rot.

He’s in even worse shape in Goldstone, sullenly monosyllabic and heavily off the wagon. The first time we meet him, he’s getting pulled over and thrown in the tank by Josh (Chronicle’s Alex Russell), the only policeman in Goldstone, an outback town that consists of the local mine, the pub, the police station, the mayor’s office and the local aboriginal community, none less than a drive away from each other.

Once again the town is run by crooks. They’re even broader here than in the earlier film, emboldened by their isolation and the obeisance of the callow Josh. As the mayor, Jacki Weaver trots out the coquettish menace for which she was so garlanded in Animal Kingdom, though the bug eyes are starting to pall. David Wenham’s mine foreman is hardly less mustache-twirling. Both are in cahoots with Tommy (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith’s Tom E. Lewis), who presides over the aboriginal land council, where he’s well greased to keep the local elders in check.

Then there’s The Ranch, where Chinese girls flown in via the mine are forced into prostitution to pay off debts. Sen opens the film with colonial images of early Chinese settlers, and the widening of the pic’s gaze to include the dehumanization of Chinese as well as Indigenous characters makes its indictment of leadership all the starker. Josh has had a “f—ing bypass," spits Swan, “like the whole f—ing country.”

The scales eventually fall from the young cop’s eyes, and he joins forces with Swan in a shootout that, like so much in Goldstone, mimics a similar moment in Mystery Road. The white sidekick here is a more central character than Hugo Weaving was in the first film, but this time he’s not the one doing the saving. Josh’s awakening is triggered by May (Michelle Lim Davidson), a Chinese girl whose ambiguous relationship to the young cop makes for some of the film’s most delicate passages.

That delicacy comes and goes. One of Swan's first house calls is to Pinky's, a mobile brothel run by Kate Beahan (Chopper). Precoital chitchat turns suddenly solemn when Swan reveals to Pinky that his daughter died the year before. We know it's an important point because the score practically asks that we remove our hats, swelling up out of nowhere to ladle on the pathos. Sen famously shoots, scores and cuts his films as well as writing and directing them, though he worked with an editor on his first feature, 2002's Beneath Clouds, and one wishes he'd do so again. There are only so many times we need to see Pedersen getting into and out of his car, magnetic as he is. The director-DP is on surer ground behind the lens, with a particular fondness for topographic drone shots capturing Swan from above, a lonely speck in the middle of endless desert.

Sen’s mid-career foray into genre hasn’t dulled his craft, but nor has it provoked him into jettisoning a certain natural languor. That restraint would feel truer if the baddies weren’t quite so exaggerated, and the performances by Russell and particularly Pedersen are so fine-grained, and so humane, that you notice the difference.

Distributor: Transmission Films
Production company: Bunya Productions

Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Alex Russell, Jacki Weaver, David Gulpilil, Michelle Lim Davidson, Pei-Pei Ching, Max Cullen, Tom E. Lewis, Michael Dorman, David Wenham, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Kate Beahan, Aaron Fa’aoso
Writer-director-director of photography-editor-composer: Ivan Sen
Producers: David Jowsey, Greer Simpkin
Executive producers: Scott Otto Andersen, Craig Deeker, Oliver Lawrance
Production designer: Matthew Putland
Costume designer: Vanessa Loh
Casting: Marianne Jade, Mike Leeder

Not rated, 109 minutes