Mystery Road (2013)

Review first published by Little White Lies

“There’s a place called Slaughter Hill, it’s off Mystery Road,” says Indigenous Police Inspector Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) into the phone, setting up the fateful rendez-vous that will bring Ivan Sen’s feature to its tense climax. It is also roughly where the narrative began, with a truck driver stopping on Mystery Road at Massacre Creek, and discovering there an Aboriginal girl with her throat slit.

Mystery, Slaughter, Massacre — these place names serve as convenient genre markers in a film that is part murder mystery, part western, and also features a motel called “From Dusk Till Dawn”, a Jason Voorhees-style hockey mask, and even a reference to a genetically engineered ‘superdog’. Yet for all their genre associations, these names are also signposts mapping out a real history of colonial outrages against the native populace, still encoded in the landscape like an open wound. And in these places, haunted by a horrific past, history appears to be repeating itself, as lines are once more drawn between a town’s already divided white and black communities, and natives are being exploited, abused and murdered all over again, with crystal meth replacing alcohol as the new social poison.

Returned after several years of exile in the Big Smoke, Jay is assigned the case of the young woman’s murder, and finds himself caught between two worlds. On the one hand he is estranged from his ex-wife (Tasma Walton) and daughter and living alone on the other side of town from where his native community resides, while on the other he is distrustful of his white masters and colleagues — like slippery vice cop Johnno (Hugo Weaving).

As Jay’s enquiries lead to racist ranchers, underage prostitutes and drug conspiracies, the earnest detective finds himself once again taking up his father’s old Winchester rifle — and significantly using for target practice the beer bottles that were his late father’s ruin. Jay’s is an uneasy legacy to shoulder, making him, as one character puts it, “like one of ’em black trackers who turns on his own type” — but in the end, however divided his loyalties, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

The final shootout atop Slaughter Hill is an unconventionally long-range affair, conducted at a distance through hunting rifle scopes. This does not just show off to good effect the wide open spaces of Australia’s dusty outback, but also gives visual form to the immense, perhaps unbridgeable divide that exists between the rock and the hard place of Australia’s ongoing culture wars.

Like John Hillcoat’s The Proposition and especially Patrick Hughes’ Red Hill, this modern Aussie oater uses the nation’s sparse topography as the spectacular staging ground for a conflict between sinister pioneers and put-upon locals. Yet while it may look like a genre film, and feel like a genre film, Mystery Road is also entirely of a piece with Sen’s earlier Beneath Clouds and Toomelah in its thematic preoccupation with indigenous issues, colonial injustice and uprooted identity.

Anticipation: Love Beneath Clouds and Toomelah

Enjoyment: Indigenous oater.

In Retrospect: Spectacular scenery, genre signposts, and a half-buried history of colonial abuse.

Anton Bitel