Director Rachel Perkins’ six-part ABC TV series Mystery Road is the third instalment in the titular franchise, following two hardboiled movies from filmmaker Ivan Sen and star Aaron Pedersen – including the terrific, big thinking neo-noir/western Goldstone. Among Mystery Road’s many virtues is a gravitas-weeping performance from Pedersen as outback detective Jay Swan, the actor channelling ghosts of gumshoes past: Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, but with jeans, cowboy boots and an Akubra.
With a new director and a television format, Swan’s venture to the small screen doesn’t mark a reduction in scope. The historically revisionist Goldstone may have had more impact, viewing the Gold Rush as a toxic foundation for modern Australia, reflected in self-seeking mining companies and purchasable governments. But Perkins’ slow (or at least slower) burn also packs a punch, presented in the style of a five-plus hour film.
The director and her producers, David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin, address the question: how can you possibly match the ground-rattling impact of Pederson’s performance? And the answer is: you fly in Judy Davis. The casting of the veteran actor (in recent years so good in The Dressmaker) as weary tough-as-nails cop Emma brings Mystery Road’s script (written by Michaeley O’Brien, Steven McGregor, Kodie Bedford and Tim Lee) more in line with the conventional, gender-pairing TV detective show.
To say this series is a cut above the average TV detective show would constitute rather faint praise.
Mark Wareham’s cinematography, however, is anything but stock-standard. The first episode begins in exquisitely cinematic style, capturing an abandoned ute beneath a stunning starry night sky. A close-up timelapse image shows the vehicle’s petrol gauge flick to empty and its lights switch off; the first clues in a plotline sprinkled with small reveals and red herrings. The opening minutes juggle sweeping aerial shots and close to the ground images inches from the dirt and dust.
Perkins returns to this juxtaposition throughout the series: visions of the ground contrasted with visions of the sky. Everything in between consists of human behaviour, the vagaries of which, consistent with previous Mystery Road instalments, involve venturing into dark places. Swan arrives in the remote town of Patterson – persona non grata, as usual – to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farmhands.
“You’re that bloke down south, aren’t ya? One who did away with those bikies a while ago?” doofus local cop Ryan Muller asks Swan. Muller marks a skilfully unlikeable portrayal from actor Anthony Hayes, who has several in his oeuvre – including a gun-toting hick in the recent zombie movie Cargo.
Early in Mystery Road there is mention of something to do with the water, which in a noir context invariably evokes memories of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The show’s sprawling storyline dabbles in disappearances, drugs, gangs, family secrets and various acts of jiggery-pokery.
There is perhaps one too many ‘this time it’s personal’ twists; the land may be vast and sprawling but boy, the human networks are close-knit. Swan’s daughter Crystal (Madeleine Madden, recently in Picnic at Hanging Rock) gets mixed up in her father’s investigations, forcing him to juggle parental and professional duties. Meanwhile, property significant to the case is owned by Emma’s brother Tony (Colin Friels) who is rather unhelpful. As is the town lawyer Travis (John Waters), who happens to be Emma’s ex-husband.
The TV series is more performance-focused than the films. It is not a coincidence that Perkins is more of an actor’s director than Sen, who is more cinematic – obsessively so, given his hyphenate approach to filmmaking (in addition to directing his films he also writes, produces, shoots, scores and edits them). Since her fine, emotionally rich debut feature – the 1998 family drama Radiance – Perkins has crafted visually engaging work, but is more interested in the terrain of a human face than the shape and flow of land.
After two films and six television episodes, there’s a feeling that Mystery Road might have barely begun.
In Mystery Road there are too many performances to do justice to in the space of this review. Wayne Blair (who is also a director; his work as a filmmaker includes The Sapphires and TV’s Cleverman) is a highlight in a difficult, downcast role as a convicted sex offender, while Madeleine Madden eschews cliche (the youth-run-amok character) by painting her performance with thrillingly real brush strokes. There are smaller, high calibre supporting turns from Deborah Mailman, Ernie Dingo, Tasma Walton, John Waters and Meyne Wyatt, among others.
The Mystery Road brand continues to roll out a dream team assembly line of Australian actors. In addition to Pedersen, Davis, Mailman, Blair, Friels and others mentioned here, there’s the cast from the two films – which include Jacki Weaver, David Wenham, David Gulpilil, Jack Thompson, Jack Charles, Tom E. Lewis and Ryan Kwanten. A blokey line-up, but it’s a blokey genre.
Goldstone both relied upon and transcended its genre elements in service of bigger messages and a polemical agenda. In Perkins’ hands, the drama is more intimate and less incendiary. There is greater room for it to breathe, with fewer button-pushing messages to contemplate. To say this series is a cut above the average TV detective show would constitute rather faint praise. It concludes in the best possible way, in the sense that, after two films and six television episodes, there’s a feeling that Mystery Road might have barely begun.