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JDIFF 2014 Review - Mystery Road

An aboriginal detective faces hostility in his investigation of a small town killing.

Directed by: Ivan Sen
Starring: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Tasma Walton, Tricia Whitton, Jack Charles


Seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. Axiom Films are set to release the movie in UK cinemas soon, date yet to be confirmed.



Big city detective Jay Swan (Pedersen) is deployed to investigate the murder of a teenage aboriginal girl in the impoverished rural Queensland backwater he grew up in. Himself an aborigine, Swan finds himself caught between the local whites, who refuse to respect him, and his fellow aborigines, who accuse him of betraying his own people by joining the almost exclusively white police force. When he discovers his own daughter (Whitton), now in the care of his alcoholic ex (Walton),  was a friend of the murdered girl, Swan becomes all the more determined to solve the case and makes several dangerous enemies in the process.
Part neo-noir, part contemporary western, Mystery Road is the sort of movie that seems tailor made for its Australian locale. The film takes on the structure of a classic detective tale, though a glamorous femme fatale is noticeably absent, and adds the classic western trope of the lawman who struggles to find support among the cowardly townfolk. There's even a Walter Brennan type character in the shape of a bushy haired old aborigine, played by the veteran actor Jack Charles.
What distinguishes Mystery Road from other films of its ilk is the unique setting of a town with a large aboriginal population. Writer-director Ivan Sen molds his story into this milieu in a similar fashion to Rian Johnson’s high school set Noir, Brick. The unfamiliarity of this territory (for those of us outside Australia at least) adds an extra layer of interest that elevates what is otherwise a standard, yet well mounted and outstandingly acted, thriller.
The downside of Sen's film is its over reliance on dialogue to propel the investigation, as is often the case with the detective genre, and the movie begins to sag somewhat in the final act, once the novelty of its outback setting begins to wear thin.
Just when it seems Mystery Road is on the verge of outstaying its welcome, however, Sen presents us with one of the most technically impressive set pieces of recent years, a shockingly realistic shootout that generates palpable tension in exploiting that small fraction of time between hearing a distant rifle shot and seeing the impact of a bullet hitting its target. If Sen can partner with a more natural screenwriter, we could be treated to something very special from this director in the future.
7/10


Eric Hillis

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