Friday, April 18, 2014

Australian Audient: Mystery Road

This is the fourth installment of Australian Audient, in which I watch one film per month filmed in the great country/continent of Australia, where I now live.

If you were tuning in today expecting a review of Alex Proyas' Garage Days, there's been a change of plans. Mystery Road, an Australian cop drama released last fall, took over the April slot when my wife suggested we watch it last Friday night. It had always been a candidate for this series, I just didn't know when my wife would want to get around to watching it. I've learned in the past not to plan movie viewings by her schedule, so I decided to leave it vague as to when I'd actually watch Mystery Road, since it was certain to be one of the ones she watched with me. (Actually, only one of the four has she not watched with me, which was last month's Strictly Ballroom. She had already seen it and just wasn't up for another viewing at the moment.)

Okay, here's the review proper:

Movies where a small-town detective tries to solve a murder despite being fought at almost every turn by corrupt figures have an appeal to me. Oh, I suppose this doesn't describe a large number of movies, but one that did come to mind several times while watching Ivan Sen's Mystery Road was James Mangold's Copland. Of course, the greater New York City area of New Jersey and a dusty town in Queensland don't have a lot in common other than that main structural element of their stories.

Unfortunately, Mystery Road and Copland don't have a lot in common either. While Copland moves forward quickly and is pretty watchable, at least as I remember it (it's been a few years), Mystery Road stagnates, running a full two hours when it really could have been three-quarters of that. That's a shame, because there's so much to recommend it that is undermined by the film's turgid pacing.

The small-town detective in question is Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), the neglectful father of a rebellious teenage daughter and ex-husband of her alcoholic mother. Jay has been called out to a remote area to investigate the murder of a young girl found in a gully, who shows signs of having been sexually abused before she was killed. Both Jay and the girl, Julie Mason, are of Aboriginal descent. As he begins following leads, Jay detects some suspicious behavior by two of his fellow cops, Johnno (Hugo Weaving) and Robbo (Robert Mammone), who stop him by the side of the road when it's clear Jay has spotted them. Suspiciously, they ask him if he's ever killed anyone accidentally before releasing him unharmed. Jay's search eventually comes to involve a suspect who may have been a regular at a seedy motel where Julie was known to sleep with truckers for money, and Julie's circle widens to involve both the sale of drugs, and his own daughter, Crystal, whose texting relationship with Julie is discovered when Julie's phone is found my some local kids. Several other suspicious figures join the group of non-specific threats to Jay and his family as the stakes are raised and the evidence seems to be mounting toward a calamitous confrontation.

Mystery Road is a hard film to come down on. Not only does it resemble Copland, but it draws from such sources as American westerns, the movies of the Coen brothers, and any number of independent cop dramas that have nourished us over the years. It is shot well and acted well, and it's a great example of the Australian film industry making good. It's easy to root for and easy to respect.

It's just not all that easy to watch. Director Ivan Sen takes an admirable gradual approach to developing the relationships between characters and revealing the details of the case, but he needed to find a better balance between spoon-feeding us and crediting us with patience and maturity. Languidness for its own sake only works in certain types of films, and Mystery Road needed to try less hard at being one of those films. This is not to say that Sen makes any artistic indulgences whatsoever -- his film is steadfastly realistic and straightforward. It just frequently creeps and slinks when it should be trotting.

Sen's minimalism can be blamed for such things as failing to convey to the audience the dynamic between certain characters, such that when certain characters show up in different contexts, it's not entirely clear who they are or what significance their presence has. This blunts some of the impact of the exciting climax, which does serve to release much of the tension that has been building in the film. One suspects the climax would be all the more satisfying if Sen worked harder to connect some of the dots for us early on. I won't lie: The thick Aussie accents contribute to some of the confusion, at least for those who haven't been listening to them all their lives.

Even if Mystery Road fails on some level as a cop thriller -- "cop drama" is the more appropriate classification -- it does succeed at giving us an unflinching vision of its world. Mystery Road does not shy away from presenting the plight of the Aboriginal in modern society, which is in many ways similar to the Native American in the United States. Many of the Aboriginal characters seen here live around the margins of society -- alcoholics, drug addicts, wayward teenage girls, old men who gamble with young children -- and even the primary example of a functional member of his race, the central detective, has clearly been neglectful of his daughter. The terrain these characters are trying to navigate is an unforgiving and bracingly realistic one, and I thank Sen for not trying to make something more commercial that glosses over the dark heart of Australia's treatment of its own indigenous people.

I also wasn't disappointed by one of my primary draws to this film, which was Hugo Weaving returning home to appear in a small movie from his native land. That's actually a fairly common thing for Australian actors to do, but we Americans don't often get to see these films, and I was excited to see a different side of Weaving than I'd seen in The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. True enough, the man is a graying, grizzled cowboy, his native accent in full force, his leering sending chills down a person's spine. He kind of resembles the New Zealand actor Sam Neill here, and his presence in this story is weighty.

Okay! I can't promise it will be Garage Days in May, but that's what I've got scheduled for now.

No comments: