Mystery Road film review

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The movement of 40s and 50s crime films from which the neo-noir genre inherited its name is mostly populated by rapidly sequenced 90-or-so minute pictures, their distinctive aesthetic rarely taking priority over the progression of a story.
Not so in writer/director Ivan Sen’s outback NSW-set Mystery Road, which, though it might look like a western, is structured like noir.
The death of a teenage girl (in older films, she would likely have been missing rather than murdered) propels Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) to investigate. The Indigenous detective sticks his nose into places it doesn’t, as they say, belong, his gruffly obstinate matter-of-fact methods getting both local authorities and locals themselves off-side.
Diazepam pacing means the clock turns slowly as Swan’s investigation suggests the existence of hermetic crime networks. Sen’s sun-baked visual style — one part Japanese Story (2003), two parts Wake in Fright (1971) – stops to smell the roses, if any could grow in the dusty locations his characters seem to grudgingly inhabit.
Pithily phrased conversations flow with a prosaic rhythm and an admirable if dramatically lax sense of realism. Swan’s inquiries may get him leads but the focus is very much on his journey and its sometimes grisly outcomes.
During rare moments of direct confrontation, even the bullets in Mystery Road travel slow. Characters shoot and wait, peering into the distance to see where their shots land, and it’s as if the entire energy of the film is encapsulated in those short pregnant pauses between trigger and impact.
Oblique in its intent and without the complexities of an investigatory film along the architectural lines of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Mystery Road broods and simmers. The performances are tight and introverted — in the lead role, Aaron Pederson is unshakably measured — and its backdrops vast and sparse.
Despite an increasing significance in the story, Hugo Weaving’s character (a member of the drug squad) is almost as unreadable at the end as he is at the beginning, and the film is similarly close-mouthed. It’s like his act is one big poker face, his life an impenetrable card game.
Sen, who directed the linguistically fascinating 2011 Indigenous drama Toomelahstaggers dramatic escalation in service of a slow burn, aiming to build tension and pack the pressure valve before eventually lifting the lid.
On this level Mystery Road is a mild success. The finale, however, disappoints. Sen’s gear stick remains lodged in the same position, as if it were stuck by all that sun and sweat.
[box]Mystery Road’s Australian theatrical release date: October 17, 2013[/box]

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