To celebrate the UK cinema release of Ivan Sen’s potent, highly-charged slow-burn western Mystery Road, this review (of sorts) meanders in search of the film’s place within forty-odd years of through lines in the Australian film industry.
For a week or so, back in late 1971, London filmgoers had – for perhaps the first time ever – the choice of two films set in the Australian outback. Those films – Nicolas Roeg’s singular Walkabout and Ted Kotcheff’s brutal, coruscating outback nightmare Wake in Fright – helped spark a revival in Australian filmmaking that has continued to evolve ever since, and have both emerged as classics in their own right. Significantly, both have also had recent revivals in the UK; Walkabout was re-released in 2011 to coincide with its 40th anniversary and a Roeg retrospective at BFI Southbank, whilst Wake in Fright made a long-overdue return to British screens earlier this year.
Indeed, Australian-produced films have gained a rather respectable chunk of UK screen time so far this year, running the gamut from popcorn genre (I, Frankenstein) to respectable art-house (The Railway Man, The Rocket, Tracks), even reaching into the niches of middle-brow musical comedy (Goddess) and skateboarding documentary (All This Mayhem). As of this week, British audiences will be in a position even more unique than their 1971 counterparts, having the choice of three films set (wholly or in part) in the outback, as Ivan Sen’s potent slow-burn neo-western Mystery Road takes its place alongside David Michôd’s ravenous post-fall road movie The Rover and, somewhat incongruously, the second sequel to one of Channel 4’s most popular sitcoms, The Inbetweeners 2, which centres upon a gap-year jaunt in the unforgiving Australian sun.
Outside their use of Australian outback locations, however, there exists a myriad of links which trickle through and across each of these films. For starters, they are all concerned, to varying degrees, with the notion of the ‘outsider’ and the difficulties of encountering cross-cultural barriers, a perennial trope for a nation that has constantly struggled to articulate its own brutal history of settler-colonialism. In Walkabout, two English school children (Jenny Agutter and Lucien Roeg) – stranded in the outback by their crazed father – befriend a young Aboriginal man (David Gulpilil in his screen debut) who helps them navigate the physical and intellectual wilderness of the outback. In Wake in Fright, an English school teacher posted in the outback (Gary Bond), has his attempts to return to the relative civility of Sydney constantly thwarted amidst the drunken, dusty antics of the residents of a rough mining town.
The cross-cultural barriers may be rather more blurred in The Rover, but the foreign control of Australia’s industrial near-future is certainly implied, and Robert Pattinson affects a Southern US drawl which belies the ambiguity of his presence in a deeply fragmented Australia stumbling through the aftermath of ‘the fall’. Undoubtedly lighter in tone, The Inbetweeners 2 similarly deals with outsiders struggling to assert their identity within a culture ostensibly similar to their own, but riven with subtle social and cultural difference. These differences reach their apotheosis when the foursome travel to the outback (in search of a girl, naturally) and become as hopelessly and utterly lost as the two school children in Walkabout (but without garnering the help of a knowledgable local).
Unlike the more straightforward circumstances of ‘foreigners in a foreign land’ that underpins each of the other films, Mystery Road weaves the complex tale of Jay (played with quiet, unassuming force by Aaron Pedersen) who is not an ‘outsider’ as such, but is nevertheless forced – as an aboriginal detective working for an overtly corrupted police force – to negotiate the tricky cross-cultural terrain that lies between black and white Australia. Cast in another light, this contrast between black and white is perhaps where potential problems lie within an otherwise solid film. Sen’s peripheral characters are painted with relatively broad brush that lacks any sense of shade. The police, in particular, are presented as wholly malevolent, the local whites are almost uniformly racist and the local aboriginals largely come across as feckless and lazy.
As detrimental as such one-dimensional characterisation may be, it does also serve to heighten Jay’s status as an outsider in his own community, even if it lends an air of artificiality. That said, although he is best known for semi-realist works made with non-professionals (Beneath Clouds and Toomelah), Sen has been keen to stress that Mystery Road was always conceived as a more commercially-inclined genre piece, a murder mystery that would share the ‘timeless, classical feel’ of mid-century Hollywood cinema’s quieter, dialogue-driven moments. Sen’s trick, I suppose, is taking those generic elements and reworking them into a very specific Australian setting, thus drawing out the subtle intricacies as well as the universalities of Jay’s story.
In the decades since Walkabout and Wake in Fright, it has become something of a cliche to present the Australian outback as weather-beaten and time-worn. In Mystery Road, Sen transposes that same unbearable weariness onto his characters, especially the local indigenous population, who seem wholly resigned to their fate as an afterthought for a political and socio-cultural elite more concerned with mining revenues and global finance. Optimistic and stoic, Jay bucks against this trend somewhat, but in returning to the town of his birth, he is quickly drawn back into the same bitter, despairing cycle of guilt, anger and regret. In joining the police force, moving across town and eventually leaving the area altogether, he is cast (upon his return) into the figure of the outsider. Having once turned his back, he returns to his communities (familial, tribal, vocational) only part of the way. He is, in his own words, ‘caught in the middle’. Again, this sense of irreconcilable inbetweeness was not accidental, but formed the seed of Sen’s desire to portray an indigenous cop caught between white bureaucracy and his own traditional community, another key figure in Australian cinema that often materialises in the form of the ‘tracker’.
Among its many other virtues, Mystery Road populates the screen with a dazzling array of talent from across the spectrum of Australian film and television. Aaron Pedersen, best known for his television roles in Australia, is perhaps a new face for many British viewers, but names like Hugo Weaving and Jack Thompson need little or no introduction. Thompson also started out as a bit-player in Australian television, making his feature debut as the hard-drinking, hard-fighting Dick in Wake in Fright, thus launching a long, successful career that has seen him develop into a true elder-statesman of Australian cinema. Alongside Thompson are bit-players with careers that have lasted just as long, including the inimitable NZ-born Bruce Spence who plays the local coroner (and Jay’s lone sympathiser) in Mystery Road, but is perhaps best known to overseas audiences as the gyro captain in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.
Elsewhere in the film is a wealth of Australian acting talent that may have recognisable faces, even if their names are less so: Jack Charles, Ryan Kwanten, Roy Billing, even Daniel Connors, who played the lead in Sen’s Toomelah. Also featured is David Field, a relatively underrated character actor who never fails to make an impact, particularly when hacking off the ears of career criminals as he did in Chopper, portraying Keithy George as a gloriously nervous bundle of misplaced energy. In fact, Field – like the outback his racist cattleman tends in Mystery Road – features in all three of those films currently in British cinemas, appearing briefly as Jay’s uncle in The Inbetweeners 2, and forming part of the posse relentlessly pursued by Guy Pearce’s character in The Rover.
From the grim discovery of a murdered Aboriginal girl at the start, right up to its tour de force finale, Mystery Road boasts an excellent script and solid performances from a dazzling array of Australian screen talent. This slow-burning but highly-charged neo-western might wear its potent racial politics firmly on its sleeve, but Ivan Sen manages to carry it off in a surprisingly subtle, casual and naturalistic manner. Many films struggle to maintain their political potency when transplanted out of their specific cultural contexts, but Sen has managed – consciously or otherwise – to craft a film that provides various audiences with different entry points into the complex, deeply contested history of post-settlement Australia.
Mystery Road is on a staggered, limited release across the UK and Eire from August 29 via Axiom Films, with a list of participating cinemas available on the Axiom website.