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Non-Review Review: Mystery Road

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

Mystery Road is mostly atmosphere. Its plot is fairly standard neo-noir drugs thriller fare; its characters are pretty stock. However, Ivan Sen’s Australian thriller has a palpable sense of dread and anxiety that seems to press down on the film. There’s a slow boil pressure cooker at the heart of the film, which rather brilliantly taps into standard film noir storytelling conventions and translates them effortlessly to the Outback.

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The character at the heart of Mystery Road is a dysfunctional outcast detective. Detective Jay Swan fits the archetype so effectively that the movie never has to explicitly articulate his own foibles. The fact that he constantly drinks water over the course of the film, and the fact that he uses beer bottles for target practice, are enough to effectively clue the audience into his status as a recovering alcoholic. It’s such a standard film noir convention that Mystery Road doesn’t even need to dig that deeply into it.

However, writer and director Ivan Sen very cleverly transposes the archetypal film noir to Australia. So Jay Swan is an aboriginal detective working on the police force. While he encounters a fair amount of explicit racism from the people he investigates, there’s also a sense that Swan is something of a pariah for working with law enforcement against the backdrop of Australian racial politics.

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It is repeatedly suggested that Swan is something of a traitor to his “people” – a term that seems to encompass as much a social class as an ethnic subgroup. Indeed, Swan is handed the investigation into the death of a young Aboriginal girl found in a storm drain. It’s his first assignment of this scale, and it’s made quite clear early on that he will not receive any assistance working the case. The implication is that he is working a dead-end investigation that has been side-lined for social and political reasons.

Sen very cleverly juxtaposes the corruption and moral decay associated with film noir against the social and political context of Australia. Like many protagonists before him, Swan finds himself fighting against an oppressive system – trying to do the right thing in a world that has a vested interest in preventing such an outcome. In most film noir, the deck is merely stacked against the protagonist by fate or nihilism. Here, Sen ties this back to Australia’s own troubled racial history.

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There’s a sense that the establishment wants to maintain the status quo as a lingering racist sentiment. When his boss suggests that Swan back off the case so some out-of-towners can come in and sniff around, before returning home without any real answers, Swan see through the gambit. “Maybe that’s you what you want,” he suggests, “to keep everything in its place.” Film noir is often about a world that simply doesn’t care. Mystery Road takes many of those tropes and sets them against an even more unsettling backdrop.

Outside of that, Sen is incredibly faithful to the storytelling conventions of this sort of tale. Packs of wild dogs seem to stalk the darkness on the edge of town, preying on the innocent; motels are anonymous; corruption is the rule; nobody cares, nobody sees; what Swan’s supervisor euphemistically describes as “red dust” seems to get all over everybody’s hands, and it never washes off easy. Lavish and atmospheric aerial shots provide a suitably haunting backdrop to Swan’s investigation.

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The Australian Outback is the perfect setting for a story like this. Excluding the eponymous roadway, Mystery Road opens at “Massacre Creek” and ends at “Slaughter Hill.” There’s a sense of impossible vastness to all this – a sense that the desert both sees everything and nothing, an anonymous expanse of land that keeps so many dark secrets for so many sinister people. It’s strikingly effective.

Of course, there are moments when it becomes a little too absurd. Despite a fantastic central performance from Aaron Pederson, Jay Swan never feels like he has more than two dimensions. The plot follows a fairly standard flow, even if it becomes a little over-complicated towards the end. The bleak isolation of the Australian Outback is captured so effectively that you wonder how Swan can so effectively tail all of these suspects; given he seems to be the only other car in a hundred mile radius, you would think they might notice him.

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Still, this is all window dressing. Mystery Road works best as a mood piece, and it is an absolutely exquisite piece of atmosphere. It is pure mood, with writer and director Sen conveying a palpable sense of dread and escalating discomfort despite the familiarity of it all. Aaron Pederson and Hugo Weaving breath life into stock character templates. Australia itself is one of the film’s most central characters. Mystery Road is well worth seeking out for any film noir enthusiast.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

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