Thursday, October 9, 2014

Milwaukee Film Fest 2014: Mystery Road

There are smart films. And then there are smaaart films, wink, wink. You know. The kind where you calmly, wisely, nod and say, “Oh, yes, it was perfectly clear what was going on.” After all, no one wants to be the first to say the Emperor has no clothes. Typically, people who mention this kind of film usually say something about slow burn, and that's something you can honestly agree with. Slooow the pot left to simmer, like an Ice Age receding, like....

You get the idea. Luckily, there are still plenty of good reasons to approve of “Mystery Road.” It makes no attempt to hide its obvious roots in American cinema, notably the western, mainly because it in no way diminishes the full-blooded, purely Australian characters and bleak rural landscape they tear around in.

Detective Jay Swan (the astonishing Aaron Pederson, here's hoping we get to see more of him) is a rookie Aboriginal detective called in to investigate the murder of a local, also Aboriginal girl in the hometown he thought he'd escaped. He may be inexperienced, but soon proves to be no slouch as he looks into the crime while uncomfortably straddling two worlds. He is the subject of barely concealed contempt of the all-white police force, as well as the contempt of the indigenous locals, some of whom view him as a sellout, a traitor, or worse.

As he digs deeper, he finds evidence of corruption on the police force, and must cope with the desperation of the many inhabitants who feel they have few options and even less to lose. (From what I gather, Australian Aborigines seem to share much of the same history and fate of our American Indians.) Most of what he uncovers hits home professionally and personally, as he discovers his teenage daughter also seems to have picked up some very bad habits.

Of course, just like every dance movie has its epic dance-off that solves everything, “Mystery Road” must build to a spectacular shootout, wherein the fates of every major character will be decided. Even if you can't figure out why it happened, and why exactly certain people are shooting at the hero, it's still one of the masterfully orchestrated standoffs I've seen.

If only the film left more bread crumbs to follow, and cleared up a few loose ends. Most of the questions can be answered by checking out the “Mystery Road” Wikipedia page, but not all. Really, what was the deal with those frigging dogs they kept talking about?

Grade: B+

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