Thursday, 3 June 2021

Movie Review: Mystery Road (2013)

A rural crime mystery, Mystery Road is slow paced and soulful, inspired by desolate scenery but stymied by unfathomable plot points.

In a small Australian outback community, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is the only aboriginal detective on the otherwise all-white and mistrusted police force. He is assigned the case of murdered aboriginal teenager Julie Mason, whose dead body is found dumped in a highway culvert. Swan reconnects with his still-hostile ex-wife Mary (Tasma Walton), but Julie's friends, including Swan's daughter Crystal, are reluctant to talk. 

Through observation and questioning, Swan uncovers the threads of a mystery involving a drug lab in the farmhouse of rancher Sam Bailey and his sharpshooter son Pete, addicted girls selling themselves to truckers in return for money to buy drugs, and hints of police corruption involving detective Johnno (Hugo Weaving), all possibly linked to the recent killing of another police officer. Swan has to sort out friend from foe and save his daughter from impending peril.

Mystery Road is both sparse and dense, a magnificent visual treat but also a test of perseverance. Australian writer and director Ivan Sen finds beauty in the outback's isolation, but also creates an almost impenetrable mystery littered with indistinct characters.

The depressingly barren setting creates its own gravitational pull, a place where the rest of the world doesn't matter. Life in the community clinging to the desert's edge is a daily struggle for relevance with plenty of empty time and space for evil to exploit. Swan is the misfit disrupter doggedly determined to find out why one young girl was killed, her body abandoned for the wild dogs to feast on, but also close enough to the highway to serve as a warning. 

Sen's pacing falls foul of repetitive scenes showing Swan pulling up in his car to talk - barely - to the next person of interest, gaining the tiniest morsel of new information then relocating to a variation of the same. The big-horizon spectacular red and orange scenery, enhanced by stunning silhouettes and straight overhead shots, does provide relief as tedium threatens to set in, but the conspiracy is still only revealed in dismissively disjointed fragments.

The simmering tension does finally erupt in a hail of bullets to place an exclamation mark upon a culture being eroded by nefarious agendas feeding on lack of opportunity, apprehension and suspicion. Mystery Road curves into a literal and metaphorical ambush from hell, even as the bad men behind all the guns remain frustratingly opaque.



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