This is my review of Mystery Road [DVD].
Of Aboriginal birth, Jay Swan has returned from a training course to work as a detective in a god forsaken outback Queensland community. Forced, ostensibly owing to staff shortages, to investigate alone the murder of a young “native” girl, Jay finds himself caught between the rock of his work colleagues’ prejudice and apparent desire to conceal some of their own shady dealings with local criminals, and the hard place of being regarded as a traitor by the native community where he grew up, everyone being a “cousin” or “brother” but reluctant to talk. He is even unable to get any information out of his daughter Crystal, now living with his estranged wife. A friend of the dead girl, it becomes painfully clear to Jay that Crystal is involved with the drug-dealing, even prostitution of the white low-lifes who are corrupting the vulnerable Aboriginal community already fractured by generations of mistreatment at the hands of white settlers.
In this slow-moving, understated film, with excellent acting from Aaron Pedersen as Jay, we are shown the workings of this outback community, with the growing evidence stacked against an honest law enforcer being able to obtain justice. The filming of the vast, flat, barren landscape with the occasional dramatic rocky scarp is very striking. Apart from a few brutal stereotypes, the characters of individuals, whether victims or villains, are often subtly developed: Jay’s bitter alcoholic ex- wife, a local drug-dealer whom he is rather unconvincingly allowed to question alone, or his boss, who may be a weak conniver or even an arch rogue. The tragedy of the Aborigines’ plight is portrayed with a conscious-churning clarity.
It was therefore a disappointment to me that the director chose to resolve Jay’s impasse with the climax of a stagy western shootout, of the kind where the good guys would in reality have been wiped out in the first few seconds.
My four stars are therefore for the work as a whole and the acting, not for the shoot-out which ruined it for me, by abruptly turning the film into an American-style western. I have to admit that many reviewers have admired this move for the quality of the direction and its arguable symbolism.