Mystery Road draws different responses from the people who have seen it. Some rank it as the best Australian film ever while others are more qualified in their responses.
The film is magnificently photographed and captures the beauty of the outback and squalor of the town where the aboriginal community lives in dire poverty. It was an interesting piece of programming by the ABC to show this film, that is an indictment of the conditions in which the indigenous community lives, on Australia Day. The beauty of the landscape is intertwined with a sense of threat and menace that is emphasised by most of the main characters, good guys and bad guys alike, carrying guns. The sense of threat builds the stunning final scenes out on Mystery Road.
There is also a superb cast of supporting actors,
Hugo Weaving as Johnno,
Damian Walshe-Howling (who seems to have a mortgage on all the seedy characters in Australian film and television are present) as Wayne Silverman,
Tasma Walton is superb as Mary, fragile hurt and defiant.
There is also Bruce Spence as Jim, the local undertaker, Zoe Carides as the randy motel owner, a fabulous cameo by Jack Thompson as Charlie Murray. But the film belongs to Aaron Pedersen, whose Jay Swan is a slow controlled burn of anger and pain.
Most of the criticism is about the loose ends in the film. There are certainly loose ends but the film is also about ambiguity and the way corruption becomes insidious and the boundary between good and evil becomes wide and vague. In many instances this works well, in others it is confusing.
One such instance where the ambiguity does not work is in the motif of the dogs roaming the outback. It strong throughout the film and parallel between the dogs and criminals is quite clear. However, the idea of the “super dog” introduced by the forensic pathologist is simply left hanging. I was expecting a return to The Hound of the Baskervilles. But no, the idea of the dogs was never really developed.
In other cases the ambiguity and uncertainty works well. Some people complain that we don’t know whether Johnno is a good cop or a bad cop. We don’t know and neither does Jay. He’s most likely both. Certainly his role in the final shootout is ambiguous. He is certainly shooting the bad guys. But he would, wouldn’t he? It’s clearly time to tidy up a few loose ends for Johnno and if this means killing off his criminal associates and protecting Jay, so be it. He is indeed one of the enigmas in the film but this is hardly a fault in the film. Sarge, played by Tony Barry, is similarly enigmatic character. He is probably not as corrupt as Johnno corrupt but simply turns a blind eye to what he knows is going on. The portrayal of evil in the film is certainly well nuanced.
What is a little more confusing is that it is not clear why the young girls are being killed. Given this is central to the film, it’s somewhat of a shortcoming. The cast of baddies is pretty big. Almost all the white guys in the film are crooks. It is Jay’s task to work out how they are connected which he does with some good old-fashioned sleuthing. He does this while channelling John Wayne. Many of the shots of Aaron Pedersen are taken from inside a house, with him framed in the doorway looking out into the vast expanse of the outback, a reference that all John Wayne fans will have picked up.
In many ways, the film is a Western, with the lone lawmen battling small town corruption. There is even a furious shootout at the end where, quite improbably, Jay manages to kill six and maybe seven of the bad guys and escape with a minor wound.
It’s a fabulous sequence and a fitting climax to one of the strands of the film. But the most satisfying part of the film comes in the final scenes as Jay drives back to town after the shootout.
The corrosive effects of the corruption the town is seen brilliantly in its impact on Mary, Jay’s ex-wife and Crystal his daughter. Jay learns that Crystal has been friends with some of the girls who have been murdered and possibly involved in their prostitute activities with truck drivers. As Jay drives back into town after the gunfight, he sees a figure standing by the side of the road. Is that someone waiting for a truck driver come past? He slows down. It’s his wife Mary. Sitting next to her, in the gutter, is his daughter Crystal. Has Mary been complicit in prostituting Crystal? Or are they simply looking for a way out of town.
In the final shot of the film, Jay walks across the road and stands looking at his wife. It is not a scene of reconciliation but it is perfectly in keeping with the film where individuals struggle to confront the corruption that surrounds them. In this final scene, Jay and Mary confront not just each other but the evil in which they have become a meshed.