Directed by: Ivan Sen; Runtime: 121 minutes
Over the past decade, from Lantana to David Michod's latest The Rover, the Australian film scene has gradually inched its way higher in contemporary prestige, producing a consistent stream of persuasive crime thrillers and modernized westerns with a gritty appeal. Ivan Sen's Mystery Road, yet another glimpse at seedy organized crime in the Aussie outskirts, aims to further that perception, hinged on drug-dealing and teenage prostitution as authority figures hesitate in directly attacking the source. While it's given a faintly unique edge through its protagonist, a detective from the region's indigenous population who both earns respect and meets some resistance because of his heritage, there's very little here that hasn't been seen or heard in countless others rural procedurals, reminiscent of the investigative energy in the Coen Bros.' brand of suspense without a compelling villain or faint black humor. Add in sluggish pacing that goes beyond slow-burning tension, and you've got a rugged yet protracted and humdrum mystery through the troubling cultural landscape of the outback.
Like many whodunits of its type, Mystery Road begins with the discovery of a body: a young local teenage girl cradled in a tunnel in the outskirts of Queensland. Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) gets called in for the investigation, a singularly-focused former tribesman and skilled sniper whose family life is in shambles. He quickly discovers the world of drug abuse and prostitution that the girl was involved in, starting a connection of dots that draws a little too close for comfort to the police department's substance task force, helmed by renegade officer Johnno (Hugo Weaving). Swan's investigation constantly brings him in conflict with the locals -- including suspected dog killers -- and his police force, becoming even more personal when his daughter's knowledge and cooperation become a necessary piece of the puzzle. As the pieces come together, it becomes more and more obvious that Detective Swan will probably be forced to handle the situation by himself.
Mystery Road operates under the impression that its disconcerting trek through police corruption and underage prostitution, the byproducts of rural drug-dealing, will provide enough of a backbone for the murder's intrigue, that the underlying seediness and Swan's crusade against it will be engrossing enough as plot devices. Director Ivan Sen's matter-of-fact handling of the material leans more towards dryness than authenticity, though, unsurprisingly tracking behind the detective's sleuthing -- poking around motels, provoking locals like Pete Bailey (a robust glorified cameo from Ryan Kwanten), buddying up with local kids for info -- without enough escalating tension or impact behind what's discovered. While the overly-attentive script bears some of the responsibility through its predictability, the film's restrained visual style and drawn-out conversations factor into that as well, an attempt at low-budget genuineness that neglects to bolster the tension. Mystery Road plays out like an everyday hour-long TV procedural that's stuffed with bland realism and undercooked social commentary until it reaches the two-hour mark, equal parts methodical and mundane.
It doesn't help that the novelty of Detective Jay Swan's character feels only halfway explored, partly by intent -- Ivan Sen leaves a lot about the collapse of his family and prior police work a secret -- and also out of undeveloped execution. Notably, Jay's presence as an indigenous detective seems both barely significant and inconsequential enough to meet the film's provocative demands, without a sturdy cultural impact. Together, it renders an obscured outline of a protagonist for Aaron Pedersen to embody; however, the actor's sharp gaze and calm intensity enhance the character's depth, revealing the temperament of an estranged father and formidable interrogator with a direct, invested purpose behind purging the area's dealers. The rest of the performances reacting to Pedersen draw from Australia's robust cache of talent -- Hugo Weaving's upticks in fierceness stand out in his cluster of head-butting sequences with Swan, while Jack Thompson adds a disquieting tempo to an at-home questioning -- yet the characters come across as a detached medley of denizens alongside the film's central premise.
Oddly, I found the most persuasive and riveting aspect of Mystery Road in Swan's cowboy-esque capabilities with a rifle, how his precision emphasizes his emotional state and how it reflects on the directness of his resolve. Along with also being a subtle yet effective way of conveying some of his personal history -- a conversation piece that quickly leads to intimidation over Chinese food -- it transforms into robust foreshadowing for the film's pragmatic yet thrilling shootout. Director Ivan Sen telegraphs a fitting, lethal finale that erupts organically around the harrowing territory of the drug trade, elevating the comments about on-duty death that are seeded throughout the story. While the reaffirming conclusion can't quite justify its slow approach to the satisfying finale, lacking much of what galvanizes Australia's many other shrewdly-executed crime films and a far cry from something like No Country for Old Men, at least it ends of a well-executed high note that suggests the director did, indeed, have some rousing ingenuity in his crosshairs.
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Posted by Thomas Spurlin on 10/09/2014