The shadowy Mystery Road

By Rebecca Harkins-Cross
Aaron Pedersen brings detective Jay Swan to the small screen

If Ivan Sen’s cinematic project could be distilled into a scene, it would be this: a storm whipping across a spirit-level-flat cotton field; two young farmhands fighting the silence with their fists; the wind speaking what the boys cannot, revealing bones buried just beneath the surface. The dust will rise, the Indigenous filmmaker insists, no matter how much we think we’ve tamped it down.

An incarnation of the above moment, which occurs in Sen’s early short Dust (2000), repeats in all his subsequent films. In his debut feature Beneath Clouds (2002), a moody road movie where a Murri boy and light-skinned girl search for their origins, a stunning escarpment is overshadowed by the massacre that took place there decades before; in the documentary A Sister’s Love (2007), then-broadcaster Rhoda Roberts returns to the forest where her brutally murdered twin sister’s body was discovered.

More recently Sen has been toying with genre cinema in Mystery Road (2013), a Western-cum-police procedural about outback cop Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), where the trigger-happy finale takes place on Slaughter Hill, presumably named for earlier bloodshed. Here violence proves to be cyclical. Together Sen’s cinema charts a haunted country, where brutality and dispossession are ongoing enterprises.

Perhaps that’s why we keep on revisiting the figure of Jay Swan, in Mystery Road’s sequel Goldstone (2016) and now a new television spin-off (this time directed by Rachel Perkins), for this liminal character has an uncanny knack for unearthing such secrets. Like the trackers who went before him, Jay must navigate between black and white worlds. He casts himself as an outsider, only just on the right side of the law, but he’s not necessarily a misfit by choice. “Who’s the coconut cop?” asks the ex-con Larry (Wayne Blair), recently released from jail after serving 10 years for paedophilia – the only figure as unwelcome in one-horse Patterson as Jay is.

Jay is summoned when an abandoned ute is found with its doors open, drained of fuel. The driver, local Indigenous teen Marley (Aaron McGrath), is missing. Security camera footage reveals that there was another passenger, a white farmhand named Reese (Connor Van Vuuren), who may not be who he seems. Whatever happened, they left in a hurry. For Marley’s mother (Deborah Mailman) the slow hunt is just another hurt, after her brother, Larry, was sent away for a crime she insists he didn’t commit. This is a small town, closely policed by the local Indigenous Corporation leader, Keith Groves (Ernie Dingo), and everyone seems to have a past.

In truth it’s unclear what the miniseries adds to the Jay Swan mythology. The most notable addition is local cop Emma James, played by Judy Davis, who prides herself on being one of the good ones. The hallways of the family homestead are lined with photos of a farming lineage stretching back to near colonisation, with Indigenous stockmen and her patrilineal chain riding side-by-side. Tough but tender, Emma knows Patterson and its inhabitants’ history intimately, and she and Jay must learn to work together if they’re going to crack the case. Emma’s brother Tony (Colin Friels) still works the land, but prosperity is drying up, the parched land cracked open in its thirst.

The artifice of the original films felt in keeping with their genre revisionism, a vague stilted quality showing up Western’s chicanery. Here was a taciturn cowboy, the last white hat casting a long shadow across a bloody frontier. Sinister drug syndicates or cartoonish mining magnates seemed like archetypes too, their hazy characterisation less important than the way Sen flipped a genre created to justify the frontier’s advance to instead show its ongoing, bloody cost.

The series Mystery Road takes on noir iconography, too. Moral turpitude is made visible in the shadows of venetian blinds, which mar characters whether they’re in shoddy motels, the lock-up or the Indigenous Corporation office. It’s unclear who’s out for whom, and Marley’s disappearance only unearths a string of other mysteries: bikie gangs, backpackers on the lam, meth trades, tussles over land and power.

In a gothic twist it’s often unclear whether it’s dusk or dawn. The bruised sky is studded with galaxies so bright the sun doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going – a fitting metaphor for this character stuck in-between. Where Mystery Road and Goldstone were shot around Middleton in Central Queensland, here we’re clearly situated in the Kimberly region: silhouettes of swollen boabs look like they’re sucking up the very earth beneath them, allowing their branches to curl higher into the firmament. Jay may be far from his country, but what the land remembers is painfully familiar.

Patterson, like Winton before it, is a forgotten town whose neglect is writ in its fibro houses and hurricane fencing. Aerial shots show roads that appear to go nowhere, carving black gashes in a red landscape that looks barren only to the unimaginative interloper. The tracks scarred on the salt plains just appear to spin in circles. When Jay’s daughter Crystal (Madeleine Madden) arrives she wants to stay because she’s found a job – which are apparently scant – at the pub. Ice runs rife, haunting not only Crystal’s past but half the town’s. When things get tough, her mother (Tasma Walton) heads to the bar. Bad guys threaten to shoot you and make it look like just another suicide.

Shrunk down for a TV screen though, the landscapes aren’t so epic and the mysteries aren’t so oblique. Rachel Perkins is a sure directorial hand, who proved her chops way back in Radiance (1998), but the show cleans up the messier edges that held the power in the original film and in Goldstone. A six-part series requires far more exposition, and far less is left unsaid. Amping up the whodunnit plotlines ironically means less intrigue than when atmosphere and aesthetics filled in the story’s gaps – where strange red herrings like “super wild dogs” roaming the landscape could be thrown out, only to fade just as quickly.

There’s one constant, though: the real mystery lies in the body of the violated girl. In the original film there was the body of local teen Julie Mason, found abandoned in a highway culvert, neck slashed into a ruby smile; in Goldstone it was the Asian girls forced into prostitution by figures similarly rapacious about the land; and now the traumatised barmaid Shevorne (Tasia Zalar), whose rape and beating as a 13-year-old girl holds the key to the town’s dysfunction. Is this just an exhausting metaphor, or the reality of a world where women’s bodies remain battlefields for power?

When I interviewed Pedersen a while back about another project, I asked him offhandedly about the cyclical violence in Mystery Road. He was quick to remind me that this wasn’t just a cinematic conceit, but a deeply held belief. “A lot of Indigenous people … believe that every creek is a massacre creek and we believe that every hill is a slaughter hill,” he explained. “This country’s got a blood land.”

In the series Mystery Road the land insists these battles aren’t over yet, even when its inhabitants willingly turn a blind eye. Until more bones rise, maybe we still need Jay Swan yet.


Mystery Road premieres on ABC TV, Sunday June 3, 8.30pm.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a writer and cultural critic. She has received several awards from the Australian Film Critics Association.

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