Mystery Road-A Modern Western Classic in Northeast Australia

Review by William J. Hammon, Creator of I Actually Paid to See This blog

The fun of the We Are One festival is the ability to see amazing art you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, including international takes on mainstream Hollywood genres. Such is the case with Mystery Road, presented by the Sydney Film Festival, where the film had its debut seven years ago this week. It was popular enough down under to spawn a sequel – Goldstone – and a TV series, the second season of which just aired in Australia. And yet it’s never gotten any real exposure here in the States, which is a shame, because it has all the makings of a great modern Western like Hell or High Water, with some unexpectedly poignant commentary on race and law enforcement. 

Aaron Pedersen stars as Jay Swan, an Aborigonal detective in the small community of Winton, bordering the desert. Having just returned to his precinct from some major training, he’s immediately put to the task of solving the murder of an indiginous teenager found outside of town. He’s a bit uneasy in his investigation as he deals with racism from the locals, distrust from other indiginous Australians who see him as a sellout, and from the powers that be within his own department, who seem content to stymie him with “limited resources” and patronizing dismissals at every turn, particularly in the form of his antagonistic and possibly corrupt colleague Johnno, played to the absolute hilt by Hugo Weaving.

Jay’s search for the killers uncovers a few uncomfortable truths. Locals are unwilling to help him, evidence is hard to come by, and what little he figures out initially puts his estranged daughter in direct danger. He wants to protect her, even move her to his nicer neighborhood and away from his vice-heavy ex-wife, but he’s constantly confronted with the loyalties he’s forged by becoming a policeman.

I was struck by how different this film feels from traditional Westerns and cop films. Here in America, it’s typical to see police and bad guys shoot at each other with giant pistols, Uzis, grenades, and just about any other type of military-grade weapons imaginable. In Australia, there are much stricter gun policies that make it so that handguns are very hard to come by, and most people are only allowed to own hunting rifles.

This becomes a crucial – and spectacular – plot point in the film, as Jay, Johnno, and local suspects use their intimate knowledge of sharpshooting and distance rifles as a means to intimidate one another. In the film’s climactic gunfight, the beauty of the entire sequence is how awkward Jay and others are when using pistols, but how steady and deadly they are when they’ve got a scope to line up their target. It adds several dimensions to the dramatic tension. I honestly was more on the edge of my seat watching Jay adjust for wind in the desert as he squared off against another rifleman than in anything I’ve seen in traditional shoot-em-ups in recent years. 

But in spite of all that – or maybe because of it – this film feels essential. Stylistically, it plays like a great Western, but it’s decidedly NOT an American Western. The elements are there – brooding lawman (complete with Stetson hat), desert setting, corruption, brazen disregard for life from the bad guys. But the one thing this has that most American Westerns don’t is a protagonist truly caught between all sides and forced to show restraint, due to circumstances both in and out of his control. That level of nuance is what makes Aaron Pedersen’s performance so steller. It’s what makes Jay Swan such a compelling character. And it’s what makes me want to see everything else in this series.

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