With a cast stuffed with recognisable faces from Australian film and television – Aaron Pedersen, Jack Thompson, Ryan Kwanten, Hugo Weaving, Bruce Spence and David Field to name just a few – Mystery Road also features stunning sequences shot on the surrounding landscape of Winton in Queensland. It is immediately recognisable as an Australian film.
However, according to star Aaron Pedersen and director Ivan Sen, the film has a far greater importance, given its depiction of the lives of Indigenous Australians.
“The film is the conversation that we should be having,” says Pedersen, “because that’s the conversation that never happened in this country. It’s a chapter in history.
“Whether it be filmically, or just its story, I know that [Mystery Road] will resonate with our people for a long, long time, because this is the conversation they want to have.
“Ivan wrote it, and I performed it, because we wanted to have this conversation. We believed it was necessary. It’s a quiet conversation, very heavy, but quiet. Maybe people will come away and they’ll think twice about it. Maybe they’ll forgive themselves for their own brutality and realise that there’s great beauty in our people.”
Pedersen stars as Jay Swan, a recently returned detective who is called in to investigate the murder of a teenage Aboriginal girl in his old hometown. Under-resourced by the department and encountering resistance from communities on either side of the starkly drawn racial divide, he commits himself fully to solving the crime.
Isolated and vulnerable, Swan persists in his mission to prevent further victimisation, while facing oblique threats from seedy fellow cop Johnno (Hugo Weaving) and racist thug Pete Murray (Ryan Kwanten). With every step Swan is drawn closer to an inevitable confrontation with his enemies along a lonely stretch of dirt called Mystery Road.
The plot themes of local corruption, intimidation of small communities by criminals and loss of innocence are all familiar to fans of genre cinema such as Hollywood Westerns.
Where Sen’s script succeeds is marrying these traditional staples to his vision of an Indigenous film with mainstream appeal.
“You could probably make 10 genre films in this country”, argues Sen, “and if at least one of the lead roles is an Indigenous role, it’s going to be unique. That Indigenous character is going to bring a unique perspective, which the genre hasn’t had before. So there’s real currency in chasing genre with Indigenous perspectives.”
Pedersen agrees, zeroing in on Mystery Road’s international appeal.
“The launching pad was first and foremost we wanted to make something that our people could connect to and be proud of. But we also wanted to make something for people of the world, because they’re the broader audience and there are a lot of people out there hungry for Indigenous content from Australia.”
“The key to that was not to alienate people,” says Sen. “We didn’t want to make it for no one. We wanted people to watch it. So it was approached in a way where it was more accessible and the genre does that.”
The reactions from audiences to the film since its release have also been interesting.
“We’ve got a lot of old white people, even 80 year olds, coming to see this film and loving it. They’re not feeling alienated whatsoever. The young people are starting to see Jay Swan as a superhero. He’s a role model to them already. There are not many Aboriginal film role models. So we have a mix of Aboriginal teenagers and elderly white people coming to see it. It seems to be a bit of a glue that’s bringing them together.”
It’s clear that Sen recognises the importance of catering to such diverse audiences, even giving iconic Australian actor Jack Thompson a speech that sums up the themes of the story.
“I suppose it takes on a different image to different individuals,” says Pedersen, “depending on what it means to them. How they see it. I know a lot of Aboriginals see it as an Aboriginal film, a blackfella film. But then there are groups that see it as a Western, or even an Outback film. It’s got a lot of dimensions. For me when we were filming it, it felt like we were dealing with the consciousness of the country, and not any other film. It was about what’s going on here in Australia with Aboriginal Australians. Not just in rural areas, but country-wide.”
That the film-makers not only had the ambition to tackle these issues, but also executed a picture that succeeds in presenting these themes in an entertaining manner, is a credit to their skills.
Mystery Road is a thrilling genre picture with many innovative touches that set it above recent offerings from Hollywood.
Mystery Road is on limited release in states across Australia. Information on screenings can be found on the website – mysteryroadmovie.com