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True Australian Detective

Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road & Goldstone are the stages for some of Australia’s most vital and racially charged conversations.

True Detective is set literally and metaphorically in the decay of America. When Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga collaborated on HBO’s True Detective series it was able to ascend above serialised television and elevate itself to serialised cinema. It’s an engrossing, mystifying story – from fresh voice Pizzolatto; with Fukunaga helming every episode – it’s a formal marvel; and in the centre of the maelstrom are the incredible performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson tasked with examining the philosophy of justice.


One year earlier, incredible indigenous filmmaker behind gems like Beneath Clouds (2002), Dreamland (2009), Toomelah (2011), Ivan Sen, transitioned into the ‘genre filmmaking’ mainstream with Mystery Road (2013). With leading man and muse Aaron Pedersen, Sen found a mystery, wrapped in the inflammatory treatment of indigenous Australians that strengthened the story, instead of suffocating it.

Mystery Road, set in Winton, Queensland, finds a young indigenous girl dead alongside a highway. Detective Jay Swan’s (Pedersen) investigation begins with underage prostitution and exploitation of the indigenous community. As the investigation broadens he must navigate corrupt members of his police force; hidden large scale illegal drug production and distribution; and racist elements of the town hiding in the blistering light of country Australia; all outside the scrutiny of politically correct city life. On the outer edges of Australian civilisation, there’s a mesh of socio-political issues that don’t have the ‘cut-through’ to make the daily news. Sen’s choice of setting has purpose.


Mystery Road is an incredible piece of cinema. At the time I called it “Australia’s answer to No Country For Old Men.” Like Cormac McCarthy (the author that the Coen Brothers adapted to make their film), Nic Pizzolatto (and Ivan Sen) paint a vivid, unforgiving world. The terrain is treacherous, the populace is hostile and life is cheap. For True Detective and Mystery Road, the politicised elements of the story serve as impediments to the goals of the protagonist. Swan must navigate his community as they feel alienated by his role as an indigenous law man. The community is disenfranchised by institutionalised racism and Swan is a beacon for justice. As a loner, he’s walking through the minefield of a police unit that he’s sure is making it easy for illegal drug traffickers to work. And he’s an empathetic man that can’t distance himself from the perverse tragedy of the situation, which barely registers a blip on the radar for the majority of the community around him.

Mystery Road is engrossing, and it’s that ability to beguile that makes the audience more aware of the demons that Jay is battling. Since Graffiti with Punctuation broke the news that Mystery Road was potentially looking to the small screen as means to follow Jay Swan’s exploits, the stage was set for this quality continuation of this necessary dialogue with issues in a form that’s accessible.


Now on the precipice of Goldstone, focusing it’s lens on rural Australia’s sparseness covering up people smuggling and sex trafficking; catch it at the Sydney Film Festival to find out.


Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman 

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