Has the brilliant Ivan Sen watched ‘No Country for Old Men’ just one too many times? For this ultimate omnimath, the Indigenous writer/ director / cinematographer/ editor/ composer who totally captured the anomie of life on the endless plains west of the Great Divide in Eastern Australia in his earlier films, Beneath Clouds and Toomelah, is here attempting a cop/cowboy murder mystery that brought back memories of the Coen Brothers’ atmospheric splatter-fest without totally convincing that he’d really mastered the genre.
But then Sen is attempting so much more as he builds his thriller around the Aboriginal detective, Jay Swan (played by actor and co-producer Aaron Pedersen), trapped in between his race, his family, his colleagues and his job, with a classically messy private life and a daughter who just might be inextricably involved in his first big case.
For the murdered victim we meet at the start is a half-caste waif just like his daughter “ and the potential links between the girls, sex with passing, anonymous lorry-drivers, payment in drugs, not to mention constant references to wild dogs, are pungently wafted like red herrings across Jay’s trail. Or should I call him Jayboy, as does Hugo Weaving’s fellow-cop/cowboy “ they never wear a shred of uniform, and with jeans, guns and big hats (Jay’s is white!), could as easily be imagined on the Mexican border as around Winton, where Mystery Road was actually shot?
Is Weaving being deliberately demeaning in the use of that name? Is he hopelessly conflicted and corrupted in his policing? Is he as likely to shoot down Jayboy as back him professionally up? Or could he be using him intentionally to provoke the mass shoot-out at the end? We’re never quite sure, even at that end “ black and white are not Sen’s primary colours! The whole khaki world of outback policing is constantly nuanced “ from the office cops who act as though Jay doesn’t exist, to Tony Barry’s bluff boss who only ever seems to brief him in a car, to the generality of police/Aboriginal relations which are portrayed (almost off-screen) as wholly oppositional.
At least none of Jay’s actual colleagues matches David Field’s rheumy-eyed, droopy-moustached farmer in dismissing him as a black-tracker.
But from that distant era, we are allowed hinted memories of Jay’s father, whose life preceded the complexities of his son’s conflicted existence “ an honourable life before the disastrous Equal Pay case as head stockman on a local station and probably an education at the Mission “ which is now pictured as a tumbled heap of (his family’s?) gravestones and a dumping place for dead cars.
Such imagery is a key part of Ivan Sen’s work “ aerial shots of cars proceeding around neat rectangular streets, such a denial of the messy lives and houses bordering those streets; wide wide-screen filming of the flatness around the town which surely makes the impossibility of both making an honest living out of the dust and escape over the distant horizon seem so tangible “ though both sunset and sunrise shots do offer hints of hope, especially the last, allusive family gathering. And the pace of the film, full of pauses for thought and Pedersen’s meaningful looks may be testing, but it’s awfully like both life and Javier Badem’s performance as the killer in No Country for Old Men. In his production notes, Sen calls this a trance like atmosphere, where the music becomes the words spoken from the characters.
What’s not like life is the plot “ full of holes which don’t quite make it into the Raymond Chandler class. Specifically, the final shoot-out seems to involve a whole lot of people I’ve never met before “ generic baddies in anonymous masks. Surely cleaning up the town should have involved more than one identified villain? Another oddity was the use of telephone conversations when other directors would have wanted us to see the human interactions. I wonder whether Bruce Spence’s coroner simply wasn’t available in Winton when needed? A lot of top but fairly underused actors did make it “ Jack Thompson, Jack Charles, Roy Billing, Zoe Carides, Lillian Crombie, et al.
But hell, Mystery Road is a film full of feeling. And so it should be, given that Sen sees it as full of my childhood and adulthood experiences, including murdered relatives and uncaring cops, racial discrimination that kept his family on the move around the endless plains, and disfunctional relatives. There’s a lot of Sen in Jay.
But Ivan Sen may have worked through this autobiographical phase now, bringing to an end an insightful series of Indigenous films. He’s now living in China with a Chinese wife, discovering new horizons (and mountains?). For, despite his surname, which I believe is Hungarian, Sen isn’t of Asian extraction “ he’s a film-maker for the world not just the Western Plains.