Indigenous Detective JAY SWAN arrives in the frontier town of "Goldstone" on a missing persons enquiry. What seems like a simple "light duties" investigation opens into a web of crime and corruption. Jay must pull his life together and bury hisl differences with young local cop JOSH, so together they can bring justice to Goldstone.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Right from the first frames, director Ivan Sen makes it absolutely clear he has a lot on his mind. He’s not the patient type, either.
Goldstone, an outback crime story, a sort-of sequel to Sen’s 2013 Mystery Road, is awash with a love of Westerns and film noir, bad blood, corporate conspiracy, hidden agendas, and racial disquiet.
Here, Sen never lets a story point settle before hurling another rock of plot at you; after 10 minutes I felt battered. But then a sense of urgency in this territory where the stakes are life and death is an asset, and sometimes subtlety is merely a place to take shelter.
Still, to call Goldstone a thriller in the conventional sense is to perhaps mislead. It’s an odd but beguiling thing, full of talk and intrigue but little real suspense where the hero spends a lot of time listening to the soured history of folks he has little tolerance for. He’s like a confessor. When he can’t take it any longer he does the only thing blokes do in movies like this: he picks up a gun to settle things.
Straight after the main titles we find detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) sleeping off a drunk in the town lockup, having been arrested as just another ‘black drifter’ by the only cop in the district, a handsome white guy with a chip on his shoulder called Josh (Alex Waters). At this point, I felt there was already enough story for two films.
The movie's title refers to Goldstone, the scene of the action - a gold mining town in the middle of the middle of nowhere.
Actually, to call it a ‘town’ is kind. It’s an off-the-grid hell hole of tin demountables, neon sleaze, and murderous bikies, populated by brawling fly-in workers, unofficially policed by a heavily armed private militia entitled to shoot on sight and beholden only to their corporate masters….and all this is overseen by wicked mayor Jacki Weaver (riffing on her Animal Kingdom persona) and company hatchet man David Wenham.
In town at the behest of the Federal Police to search for a missing Chinese woman, who may have been mixed up in a sex trafficking operation linked to the mining company, Jay doesn’t take long to discover that in Goldstone, everybody seems to be hiding behind a job – including Josh.
Sen doesn’t let his hero off the hook either. Jay has slipped, hitting the drink hard after the tragedy that befell his family in Mystery Road. He has some unfinished business to contend with. He finds some spiritual healing once he encounters Goldstone’s tribal elder, Jimmy (David Gulpili).
This Old Timer turns out to be the only thing that stands between preserving what’s left of the community’s country and the mining company intent to blow it to smithereens in order to find gold.
"For all the dark portents in the imagery, Sen has not made a grim or inward-looking film."
Every so often Sen cuts to helicopter shots that drive home the fact that we are a long way from anywhere; the earth looks like those NASA images of Mars and the roads run in straight lines to meet an endless horizon.
For all the dark portents in the imagery, Sen has not made a grim or inward-looking film. A genre movie fan – the film abounds with references to North by Northwest, Bad Day at Blackrock, Pale Rider, Shane, Mad Max 2, to name a few – Sen produces shoot-outs, chases, and shock effects with skill and verve.
Still, they are delivered with a sense of playfulness; Sen knows part of the delight for filmmaker and audience in genre is respecting its traditions while testing its boundaries, which gives him license to toy with stuff here that is plainly ridiculous (no spoilers!) but it's never less than fun.
That wicked sense of irony cools the sense of outrage that rolls out of the screen, deflating pretension. It carries over to the way Sen deals with character, too. The fine cast seems to have been encouraged to act their socks off, aided and abetted by the fact that Sen writes long showy scenes, often with a satirical edge.
Wenham’s villain, for instance, is somewhat reminiscent of a recent former conservative Prime Minister of Australia in style, speech, look and sensibility; a sinister force hidden behind oversized spectacles, bad hair and an ‘I’m everyone’s best buddy’ manner.
Like a western hero Jay is trouble; his tortured resolve is the force that restores order... though Pedersen’s Jay hasn’t the arrogance of the traditional ‘good bad guy’ of American westerns. It’s almost like he’s unconscious of just how powerful an agent of change he is here (an irony that Sen relishes.)
The many narrative lines all converge to send Jay on his way – which could well mean oblivion. But there’s something disturbing about this guy’s stoic distaste in the face of the cruelty he discovers. It certainly stirs Josh. This swaggering cop hasn’t been so much working the job as keeping its bad secrets to himself. They form an alliance while remaining wary, an evolution that neatly mocks a generation of dumb ‘black and white’ buddy movies.
As well as writing and directing, Sen composed the broody beautiful music that reminded me of church hymns, shot it and cut it. Like Mystery Road, Goldstone is a conflicted experience of warring technical virtues and narrative vision; it plays long and still feels too short, the storytelling is straightforward to the point of being anti-climatic and Sen’s direction hammers home every point. Yet, the sense of place – and the delicate sensibilities that find soul and belonging in it - is so vivid you can almost taste the dust.
In other words I could have spent more time with everyone here especially May (Michelle Lim Davidson) an angry prostitute and her Madam (Cheng Pei-Pei) and Tom E Lewis corrupted land council leader...
I came away with more rewards than not and Sen and Aaron Pederson have created a terrific character in Jay Swan with more than one movie in him. I hope he’s back soon.
Friday 9 July, 9:30pm on NITV & SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Thriller, Crime
Director: Ivan Sen
Starring: Aaron Pedersen, David Wenham, Jacki Weaver, David Gulpilil, Alex Russell