If there’s one thing that Australian filmmakers have excelled at throughout our nation’s cinematic history, it’s the ability to, and the clear delight taken in choosing a genre and subverting it’s traditional tropes in order to stamp it with a big, bold ‘Made in Australia’ kangaroo shaped watermark. P.J. Hogan’s glorious Muriel’s Wedding (1994) took the traditional romance film and re-worked it to tell a love story between two female friends who escape the terrors of Australian suburbia and drive off into the sunset together. The Proposition (2005), penned to perfection by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, took the classic conventions of the Western and shuffled them like a deck of cards; blurring the lines between the good guys and the bad guys – particularly the ‘Sheriff’ equivalent character, Captain Stanley – whilst proudly showcasing the grim, brutal mercilessness of the Australian landscape, a character in its own right. Mystery Road is the most recent release which is all too worthy of a place in this hall of fame of Australian genre subversion films.
Somewhere along Mystery Road, not far from Massacre Creek (not even joking about these place names), the body of a teenage Aboriginal girl is found by a truckie in a drainpipe underneath the highway. Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) takes charge of investigating the murder. Having recently returned to his outback hometown to take up this posting, Jay finds himself ostracized not only by his fellow local Aboriginal community, who distrust and despise anyone authoritarian, but also from his uninterested and prejudiced police department peers; all white Australians. As Jay works doggedly on unravelling the mystery of the murdered girl, links to a sinister underworld of crime, drug trafficking and prostitution operating in the town begin to come to light, and this outback thriller reaches its epic climax with an impressively shot, refreshingly real, and heart-stopping shootout scene at Slaughter Hill (again, totally legit).
Mystery Road certainly draws from traditional conventions of the film noir. Jay is a typical noir anti-hero in many ways. Caught between the mistrust of the Aboriginal community in the town and the racism of his fellow cops, he is a brooding lone wolf, disillusioned with the bleak corruption of his old hometown. He struggles to express or deal with his emotions and carries with him a heavy burden of guilt due to his prolonged absence in the lives of his ex-wife and daughter. Furthermore, despite being set in the heat of the Queensland outback, the film exudes a cold atmosphere of fear, melancholy, alienation, pessimism, moral corruption and desperation – all moods distinctly belonging to films of the noir style.
However, in its visual style the film also manages to subvert many of the noir characteristics. Mystery Road opens in the very early moments of dawn and ends in the bluish haze of dusk. This clever bookending makes for a film playing out almost entirely in the gleaming white light of day, unlike the darkness of the mostly night time set noir films of the post Cold War era, such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Double Indemnity (1944). Similarly, the majority of the film is set outside, which is a direct contrast to the way that most noir films set in interiors, their protagonists staring out suspiciously through venetian blind slats.
Mystery Road also has clear stylistic and thematic inspirations taken from Western films. Jay’s look is reminiscent of Western heroes with his cowboy boots, jeans, gun holster belt and, of course, his white cowboy hat (the colour screaming out the good guy role, loud and clear). The final shootout is also characteristically Western. Director Ivan Sen, who also wrote, shot, edited and scored the film, seems ultimately to be aiming towards using the Western and film noir genre tropes as a platform from which to investigate more prevailing and complex themes of racial prejudice, identity, displacement and culture. Aside from the obvious ways in which Jay is treated differently because of his racial background, there are also more subtle recurring links made to ‘dogs’ and ‘wild dogs’ and how it is that someone can tell the difference between the two. Also, Johnno (played with a brilliant menacing feel by Hugo Weaving), one of Jay’s fellow police investigators, constantly refers to Jay as ‘Jay Boy’, a very racially loaded nickname.
It is in this way that some may be disappointed with Mystery Road, depending on one’s expectations of a murder mystery. It doesn’t play with plot twists and turns as much as most other crime thrillers, and it progresses at a slow pace, peeling back the surface layers bit by bit to steadily reveal the darkness of the criminal underworld which is tightening its grip on the town. Mystery Road focuses on examining issues of racial, cultural and gender differences in Australian society in this harsh, rural setting which seems stuck in a nondescript time zone. Jay’s car is an indication that the film is set in the present day, however, many of the other characters drive utes from the 70s, endowing the film with a blurry sense of timelessness. Thus, Sen seems to want to provoke thought and discussion in his audience about the past, present and potential future issues which influence Australian society, rather than simply entertaining us for two hours. His use of the stylistic and thematic traits of Western films and film noir are merely a dive-board from which to plunge into the depths and get to the very bottom of things.
Mystery Road is a dark, cold crime thriller set in the unforgiving heat of the rural Queensland sun. It is a film influenced by traditional Western and film noir genres, but one that subverts and experiments with their classical tropes as well. It’s an absorbing investigation into questions of difference in race, class, and gender in Australian society. Highlighting various contrasts in its characters as much as the film itself is a surprising contrast of stylistic traditions and modern twists, Mystery Road is a welcome addition to the canon of Australian films which refuse to conform to genre rules and in doing so, stand their ground as unabashedly Australian.