October 22, 2013 Film ReviewsUpdates


Searching for truth can often entail crossing treacherous thresholds, breaching entrenched norms and compromising enforced loyalties. It is a predicament made all the more formidable when you find yourself caught between two worlds.

Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is a young and newly appointed Aboriginal detective in the small rural town of Winton in Queensland. His first case happens to involve the murder of a young Aboriginal girl, Julie Morris, whose mutilated body is discovered in a tunnel beneath the town’s ominous highway.

In searching for Julie’s killer, Swan uncovers clues that align his investigation with the agendas, schemes and potential complicity of a range of individuals within the troubled community, including his unscrupulous colleagues Johnno (Hugo Weaving) and Robbo (Robert Mammone), local criminal Wayne Silverman (Damian Walshe-Howling), a shady sport hunter with gang connections (Ryan Kwanten), and Swan’s own teenage daughter Crystal – who Julie contacted shortly before her gruesome murder.

For his third feature, writer/director Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds, Toomelah) splices and interweaves a number of genres, including the road movie, the murder mystery and the social commentary picture, to explore cultural identity within the broader context of provincialism, domestic violence, family disintegration, police corruption and teenage prostitution.

In detective Jay Swan, Sen offers a protagonist whose ambivalent position within the racially divided community of Winton becomes both the source and subject of ongoing tension, conflict and consternation. Severed from his family and suspicious of his colleagues, Swan is perpetually out of place; struggling at once to uphold the law and forge a connection with the broader Indigenous community. In a powerful interrogation scene, the slimy, condescending Silverman accusingly questions Swan’s credibility and loyalty: ‘How can you sleep at night knowing that you’ve locked up your own people?’

For Sen, it is precisely the divided, equivocal and turbulent orientation of cultural identity that frames his understanding of both Indigenous Australian history and his own upbringing in a remote rural setting. In an insightful “Director’s Statement” accompanying the film, Sen explains:

I’ve always been interested in the fringes of cultures, and especially drawn to the historic role of the “Turncoat”. In Australia he was the Indigenous Black Tracker or the Native Policeman, and in America was known as the Native American Scout. He was a man employed to track, disburse, and even slaughter his fellow people. Even though they were often engaged in areas of opposing tribal groups, the internal pressures of such an occupation must have been hard to comprehend, at times possibly being the ultimate identity crisis. This struggle of cultural identity is something I personally dealt with while growing up in a small country town, and have continued to explore it through Mystery Road.

The taut, moody, brooding drama of Mystery Road unfolds against a harsh, disintegrating and unforgiving landscape beset by violence and punctuated by bloodshed but, ironically, and evocatively, captured by Sen’s resplendent vistas and fluid aerial photography. Here, enigma and tragedy assume a haunting and paradoxical beauty, filtered through rustic shades of cadmium orange, burnt umber and sunset indigo.

In the stark and ostensibly bleak world of Mystery Road, the pursuit of justice and the struggle for connection (with one’s family, colleagues, community) is fraught with peril, susceptible to failure and therefore demands nothing less than urgent action from those who are willing to persevere – often against hope and impossible odds.



– Dr. Varga Hosseini