When an aboriginal girl is found with her throat cut and hidden under a dusty highway – the rather clunky named Mystery Road – the local Australian police force barely bat an eyelid. They’re used to finding Aboriginals (or “Abbos” as they call them) being found dead or reported missing, it’s simply a by-product of the fact that they live in poverty and easily succumb to drink, drugs, gambling, prostitution and more. The force half heartedly assign half “Abbo”, half “white man” Detective Jay Swan (played by Aaron Pederson) – who has recently returned from the big city to the outback – to the case, assuming that it all will be forgotten about soon.
The fact that the film doesn’t really try to solve the murder is irrelevant because Mystery Road neither cares who the killer is, nor particularly why we are watching these characters at this particular time. It is mostly a beautiful looking advert for the vistas of the Australian Outback and a vague attempt at discussing some of the problems in the community in which they live. The problem is, that our leading man doesn’t come across as interesting, funny or smart, and he’s not even particularly sullen or introspective. He’s just bland. I suspect that some critics like the fact that the lead of the film is a “realistically created character” but in reality, you simply get bored of spending time with him – very quickly. Other characters are far more interesting; a slightly dodgy drugs cop played by Hugo Weaving (Elrond or Agent Smith to you or I) is a fascinating mix of corruption and “end justifies the means” mentality; and a wise Aboriginal uncle played by Australian national treasure Jack Charles is charming and eccentric. Why are these characters not our heroes?
Director Ivan Sen really knows how to make his film look fantastic, the locations are breathtaking and the interesting choice of shots keeps things fresh. One moment, when Jay discusses the murder with a forensics expert investigating the body, we see a tumbleweed struggling to escape in the wind; a keen metaphor for the Aboriginal girl who may have been better served “on walkabout” – not in the slums of a drug ridden town – but couldn’t escape. Alas, the cardinal sin here is that Sen really can’t put a story together very well at all. He wrote, directed, produced and is Director of Photography on this film and, as much as I’m impressed by this dedication to a “passion project”, it seems to be more like a vanity project. The writing is dreadfully poor, conversations are contrived and the story is meandering and – at times – impenetrable. The fact the mystery remains inconclusive isn’t particularly a problem, in fact it’s quite an admirable idea, but the coming and goings of numerous unimportant characters and an underdeveloped attempt at discussing the division between Aboriginals and White Australians comes across as a messy attempt at delivering an “important message”. The film only really comes to life in the final few scenes, which are admittedly shot with flair and a dab hand for tense, exhilarating action. Sen has knows how to construct a thrilling shoot-out, it’s just a pity he can’t construct a proper story. By the time the climax trundles along your attention will have dwindled and you’ll care so little about the consequences for the leading man that you only enjoy it because finally something exciting is happening in a film, that until then, had been a languid and introspective trudge.
It has ambition, some interesting characters and beautiful cinematography but a boring leading man, incompetent writing and a meandering story make Mystery Road a bore and a missed opportunity.
Mystery Road is out now in limited release at art house cinemas and big city multiplexes.