Note: As it was originally writtten for Flixchatter, this review is formatted differently than most of my work.
Mystery Road (2013)
Mystery Road is ostensibly a police procedural about Australian outback Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), who investigates the murders of indigenous girls. In that sense, the film is predictable, opening with Swan being assigned a murder case and following him through his investigation. Eventually, of course, he learns the truth, and then must grapple with the personal consequences of his new, and dangerous, knowledge. If we only consider the plot, Mystery Road is borderline formulaic and certainly not inventive. On the other hand, if that is all we consider, we are unfairly pigeonholing this complex movie.
Because, in a master-class display of showing not telling, filmmaker Ivan Sen (the picture’s writer, director, editor, cinematographer & composer) ensures the story is tertiary, important only as a vehicle to represent setting and characters, in that order. Therein is why Mystery Road opens with sweeping, late-night aeriel shots of the rural outback. The wide angles are impressive, but made all the more so by their juxtaposition with close-ups of a truck driver (Hayden Spencer) using a flashlight to check his rig’s tires and then, after hearing a howling dog, to light his walk through nearby terrain. The sequence is wordless and slowly paced, meaning our focus is on the location, not the trucker himself and certainly not his actions. Perhaps that’s why we’re startled when he finds the first body, that of Julie Mason.
At that point, Sen cuts to protagonist Jay Swan. Now we watch the detective, becoming intimately connected to him at the same time we learn more about Winton, a rural town. Swan asks his Sergeant (Tony Barry) for extra manpower to help him investigate Julie’s death, but he’s rebuffed. So he works alone, encountering racism aplenty. Some of the residents he meets are indigenous, like Swan’s ex-wife, Mary (Tasma Walton), and his daughter, Crystal (Tricia Whitton). They live in small houses. Others are white and own farms with larger homes. Still others, including Johno (Hugo Weaving), are morally obscure, leaving us to ponder their objectives. All of which contributes to Mystery Road’s greatest strength: neither Sen’s filmmaking technique nor his screenplay tell us what to think; he shows the conditions in which his characters live and trusts that we’ll understand his message.
That Jay is well developed and that Pederson is captivating helps, as well. As do the strong supporting performances (special mention to Weaving and Walton), and the interesting secondary characters, most of which make sense. Johno is the lone exception. Even in the movie’s climax, we do not comprehend his motives. Johno is Mystery Road’s biggest misstep, but it is easy to overlook. As is the film’s other mistake: having so many characters that tracking them is difficult.
The flaws do not limit the picture’s effectiveness, because Sen’s minimalist filmmaking is entrancing. He uses his simple score infrequently and powerfully, punctuating scenes and cementing emotion. Ditto that for his almost tangential dialogue, and his camera work and editing cuts, each of which are reserved. The director’s decisions immerse us in his setting.
As if it isn’t sufficiently clear, Mystery Road is almost magical and surely one of the best movies at MSPIFF.