Writer-director-lenser-editor-composer Ivan Sen’s “Mystery Road” is an impressively crafted, immensely satisfying contempo thriller that astutely grafts Western and film-noir elements onto the hot-button issue of tensions between indigenous and European Australians. Set to roll out in Oz in October under the Dark Matter banner formed by Sen, producer David Jowsey and exec producer Michael Wrenn, the pic has been snapped up for an early 2014 Stateside release by Well Go USA Entertainment; in the interim, the fest road stretches to the horizon.
In his remote outback hometown under the endless sky (the pic was shot in western Queensland), Aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) has returned after several years away in the “Big Smoke” — presumably Sydney — to rejoin the all-white police force. Bearing the brunt of the casual, institutional racism therein, Swan is also looked askance at by his own people, who are wary of authority; even the dark-skinned security guard at the local market glares at him. “I’ve been in the middle my whole life,” Swan says at one point.
For his first big case, Swan is assigned the death of a teenage girl found in a culvert outside town, her throat slashed. Using methodical, old-fashioned police work, Swan’s by-the-numbers investigation leads him down paths both predictable and surprising. The inquiries grow to implicate Swan’s white ex-wife Mary (Tasma Walton) and daughter Crystal (Tricia Whitton), from whom he’s estranged, as well as his cryptic commanding officer (Tony Barry), condescending colleague Johnno (Hugo Weaving) and hostile kangaroo hunter Pete (“True Blood’s” Ryan Kwanten).
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Holding the narrative tightly together is Sen’s superb script — his fourth produced dramatic feature and first genre exercise. Rich in imaginative metaphor and brooding symbolism, the film incorporates such disparate elements as the growing threat of wild dogs in the region, the God’s-eye shots of Swan navigating the town’s roads and even the dusty red dirt that coats everything in the outback, creating an atmosphere of brooding menace and moral rot.
A la “Chinatown” (at times Swan reminds of J.J. Gittes), the physical location Mystery Road is a place of metaphorical destiny where something transformative happens. In this case, the titular outlying trail is the site of a visceral, nearly wordless and spectacularly choreographed 15-minute gun battle, pitting hero against miscreants known and unknown. One need only register the race of the last man standing to figure out Sen’s views on the fate of his protag — and, by extension, indigenous peoples in general.
Pedersen’s laconic delivery fronts a distinguished lineup of Aussie character talent that includes Weaving at his most malevolent, Bruce Spence as the philosophical town coroner, David Field as a particularly contemptuous resident and Jack Thompson as an aging local recluse with a key piece of information.
Tech package is aces down the line, highlighted by Sen’s widescreen 5k lensing on the Red Epic camera and some particularly complex sound work, which emphasizes the determined clonk of Swan’s cowboy boots, the cacophony of gunplay echoing off buttes, and the whisper of the eternal outback wind.