I found a friend in a fairly high place at the Sydney Film Festival who encouraged me to come along this year – without the expectation of of a lot of writing in response. But how can I not alert readers to the achievement of Mystery Road: written, directed plus cinematography by Ivan Sen. It’s not easy to put into only a few words what makes this film so good. So far as boxes go – it’s an outback crime thriller. But Sen adds layers of complexity (without weighing the film down) by drawing on his Aboriginal origins. Aaron Pedersen – as Jay Swan – gives a beautifully balanced (emotionally) performance as the youngish Aboriginal police officer just back to his sprawling dirty home town after training up in the big smoke to ‘detective’ status. Like so many what break through the ‘white’ ceiling, Jay is neither particularly welcome back among his white police comrades nor his Aboriginal friends and family in and around town.
This does not stop him from setting out to solve a recent murder. Which quickly reveals other deaths – connected to a racket where bored and alienated town girls trade sex for drugs with truckies on the look out for a comfort stop on their long haul. Pulling their mega-rigs to the side of the highway for a quickie or taking a night off in a cheap local hotel. These black girls are, allegedly, worthless. And treated accordingly.
With due respect to Pedersen and an illustrious support cast that includes David Field, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Zoe Carides – and many other familiar faces, the star of the show is the town. Its ordinariness reeks of a repressed culture of hate that suggests its not the only town like this in southern Queensland, nor indeed across semi-rural Australia. Despite the rough men and the rifles and the drugs and the pig dogs, this film is so much more subtle (and curiously funny at the most unexpected moments) compared to its predecessors which go back as far as Wake In Fright, and include more recently Snowtown, Wolf Creek and Samson and Delilah.
Teenage boys would love the film for all it offers this demographic, meanwhile unaware (consciously) that they are taking in themes about race, gender and identity. And what it means to be a man in this country today. Meanwhile for movie buffs – this is a fabulous mainstreamer up their with Japanese Story. Good structure, a story not only engaging but elegantly told, fine performances, beautiful camera (from Sen) – including some great geometric aerials of the town from above. (A device that gives breathing space to this otherwise highly-charged movie, plus reminding us of just how aesthetically shitty many Australian country towns are. No criticism of the good people of Winton in southern Queensland who opened their town to the shoot.)
Enuf for now. I just want to get this up and out. It’s been a long time since I’ve attended a Sydney Film Festival. And this one, the 60th, has got of to a very impressive start.