Mystery Road (4 stars)

Mystery Road

An atmospheric, expertly controlled modern western starring Aaron Pedersen and Hugo Weaving

Writer-director Ivan Sen's flinty, slow-burning murder mystery is a western wrapped in the trappings and clichés of a modern thriller. Aaron Pedersen's Stetson-wearing detective Jay Swan is just as much of an outsider as John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.

When Jay returns from the big city to his native town of Winton in Queensland, he discovers that his absence has forfeited him the right to be part of his own Indigenous Australian community. He is also kept at arm's length by his wary white colleagues. The situation only grows worse when his first case involves the murder of an Indigenous teenage girl. Nobody willingly offers their cooperation, nobody wants him to ruffle too many feathers.

Sen sets his complex, messy tale in a dusty, ominous Australian outback where the blinding, blood orange sunsets and vast, stark landscapes speak of a world where you could disappear and never be missed. The surface welcome of blustering macho bonhomie provides the thinnest cover for deeper-running issues of racism, corruption, drug-dealing and many other less than admirable aspects of Australian society.

It's hard to believe there is anyone Jay can trust, especially local sergeant (Tony Barry) and steely drug squad colleague Johnno (Hugo Weaving). The murder investigation also touches Jay's estranged wife Mary (Tasma Walton) and his daughter Crystal (Tricia Whitton), who greet his presence with as much indifference as the rest of the community. Everything starts to seem personal in a film that sometimes feels like it has bitten off more than it can comfortably chew.

Measured and sparing in its use of dialogue and music, Mystery Road remains strikingly atmospheric and expertly controlled as Sen builds a sense of quietly escalating tension.

Selected release from Fri 29 Aug.

Mystery Road trailer

Mystery Road

  • 4 stars
  • 2013
  • Australia
  • 1h 52min
  • Directed by: Ivan Sen
  • Cast: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Jack Thompson
  • UK release: 29 August 2014

When Jay Swan (Pedersen), an Indigenous Australian detective, returns to his native town of Winton from the big city, he finds himself an outsider; then his first case involves the murder of an Indigenous Australian girl. Expertly controlled and strikingly atmospheric murder mystery disguised as a modern western.