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Mystery Road | 2013 TIFF Review

Lost Highway: Sen Returns With Racially Charged Thriller

Ivan Sen Mystery Road PosterCelebrated Australian director Ivan Sen returns with his fourth feature, Mystery Road, a brooding murder mystery set in the menacing Outback. While Sen captures an engaging lead performance and has assembled a notable amount of supporting players to flesh out his down and out whodunit, an adherence to formula and genuine lack of surprise casts a deathly pallor over a soggy middle. An exploration of racial tensions through a radically placed protagonist, as well as a rousing finale compensate, for the lack of narrative oomph, though one gets the sense that director/screenwriter/director of photography/composer Sen donned too many hats this time around.

On a sickly orange and green lit night, a truck driver investigates a wild dog running off into the brush, a pest that has started to become a notable nuisance to residents of rural Queensland. A putrid smell leads him to the corpse of a young Aboriginal girl. Called to the scene is local police detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), recently returned from a stint in the city, himself an Aboriginal. His status as an officer of the law places him at odds with his own community, which includes his ex-wife and teenage daughter, while he’s something of a novelty to the mostly white police force. Swan’s investigation of the girl’s death is met with abject resistance from all sides, with the whites commonly vocalizing their wishes to protect their current way of life, leaving the marginalized Aboriginal community warily on their own. The deeper he digs, the more suspicions he arouses. As wild dogs run rampant across the countryside, Swan learns of drugs and prostitution on the highway. When Swan brings in a colleague’s (Hugo Weaving) number one informer, he seems to have caught a thread that quickly unravels.

The character of Jay Swan is meant to reflect the slowly changing social landscape of stagnant rural conditions and understanding. Something of a cowboy cop, Aaron Pederson is a magnetic presence at the heart of Mystery Road, as we’re with him through nearly every scene, watching events unfold through his own observations. While we logically predict the eventual outcome, a host of motley characters spice up the proceedings, including a vicious Ryan Kwanten as a racist denizen, and an unpleasantly unreadable Hugo Weaving. And Aussie treasure Jack Thompson makes an appearance.

Sen captures a simmering desolation in the red dust and wheat fields of Queensland, but at a running time of two hours, patience wears thin and a sub-plot involving Swan and his estranged daughter feels unnecessary. While Mystery Road and Ivan Sen’s past body of work certainly provide evidence of a multifaceted filmmaker, there’s a lack of energy here, where brooding often turns to plodding, and the only mystery is how much time will elapse before we get confirmation to questions we already know the answers to. But damned if there isn’t one entrancingly orchestrated long range rifle shoot out showdown that certainly reels you back in.

Reviewed on September 7 at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Special Presentations Programme.
118 Mins

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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