imagineNATIVE Review: Mystery Road

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If you missed Mystery Road at TIFF last month, then you are in luck as the film opens the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival with a bang. Mystery Road is the kind of slow burn thriller that you wish was more prevalent these days. There has always been something attractive about the notion of a lone hero who must navigate through the murky waters of corruption. A detective who is willing to risk it all, even if it means sacrificing his family life, to uphold the ideals that he has sworn to the minute he put on his police badge.

Hailing from Australia, the film is a police procedural that has its feet firmly planted in the old-school western genre. Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an Australian Aborigine, returns to his small hometown and finds himself investigating a murder that no one seems to want him to solve. In a town where everyone knows everyone else, Jay is constantly stonewalled by not only the locals (such as Ryan Kwanten), but by his bosses and fellow officers (Jack Thompson, Hugo Weaving) as well. To further complicate matters for Jay, he must confront both his alcoholic ex-wife and his estranged daughter whom he left behind.

Writer/director Ivan Sen crafts a film that slowly builds to its heart-pumping climax. The final face-off is stunningly choreographed and serves as a perfect bookend to the tension that has been brewing underneath the surface throughout the entire film. What makes this tension so palatable, and separates Mystery Road from other films in the genre, is the way Sen incorporates the racial divide of the land. The racial tension within the film is as hot as the sun on the dusty landscape. The fact that both Jay and the murdered young woman are indigenous plays a large role in how the community reacts to the incident. The girl’s death is something that most non-Aboriginals would like to see quietly disappeared. As seemingly the only non-white on the force, Jay’s presence is often viewed with suspicion by both races.

Aaron Pedersen is fantastic as the brooding detective whose frustration and dedication are closely intertwined. Pedersen masterfully conveys his character’s desire to do right by both the dead victim and his daughter. Though a complex man, the character seems almost simple compared to the layered levels of secrets and lies that permeate the small town. Pedersen’s performance is aided by the strong work of Mystery Road’s supporting cast. Hugo Weaving is strong as a shady detective on the force, Tasma Walton delivers a great performance as Jay’s alcoholic wife, and True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten is effective in an against-type role as a racist hunter. The strong performances really help to accentuate the various puzzle pieces that Sen is slowly putting in place.

Of course solving the puzzle will come at a great price. As if confined in a labyrinth built on lies, Sen creates a sense of claustrophobia within the small town. He turns up the heat by giving the town an isolated feel through the use of both aerial shots and scenes lit by the orange glow of the setting sun. All of this works brilliantly to help create a film that crackles with suspense. Its classic storytelling and strong performances makes Mystery Road a film that should not be missed.

Mystery Road screens on Wednesday October 16th at 7:00 PM at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema